Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Council Overrides Mayor’s Veto

Should Friends of Housing contract be terminated? Did mayor violate attorney-client privilege or council violate city charter?

By - Mar 25th, 2020 10:17 am
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The rear of 1305-1311 W. Madison St. Image from City of Milwaukee.

The rear of 1305-1311 W. Madison St. Image from City of Milwaukee.

Alderman Jose G. Perez wants to use the power of the city’s purse to get better behavior out of housing management non-profit Friends of Housing. And the Common Council is backing him, even overriding a controversial veto from Mayor Tom Barrett.

Friends of Housing has a contract with the Department of City Development (DCD) to manage five city-owned homes, none of which are in Perez’s district. But the non-profit does manage two privately-owned “nuisance” properties in Perez’s district that have racked up thousands of dollars in fines.

Since early 2019 Perez has sought to terminate the DCD contract. And the vetoed proposal requires DCD to “explore the feasibility” of doing so.

Barrett, violating what council members said was “attorney-client privilege,” shared an email from an assistant city attorney Kathy Block in his veto letter that said the resolution exposes the council to “allegations of improper conduct.” Barrett said the move would violate the city charter.

A three-page report from the city’s Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB) shows the two multi-family properties in Perez’s district, 1305-1311 W. Madison St. and 1740 S. 12th St., had 25 incidents dating back to 2016 including multiple shootings, an overdose death and multiple incidences of recovered heroin, cocaine and firearms. Both properties were labeled a “nuisance” by the Milwaukee Police Department and racked up over $5,000 in fines, the LRB report shows, though Perez told Urban Milwaukee the total actually exceeds $10,000.

“As a result of what’s taken place in my district and the amount of nuisance activity, I don’t want to see any business done with the city that we control done with Friends of Housing,” said Perez in 2019. “I understand things happen, but the manner in which it was handled and not abated was an issue for me and residents.”

A council committee debated the contract in 2019, but held the matter after DCD said it was “satisfied” with the work the organization was doing. After Perez learned DCD renewed the contract without consulting the council, he moved in late February that the full council vote on a resolution that requires DCD and the City Attorney to “explore the feasibility of terminating all contractual relationships with Friends of Housing Corporation” and requires any future contract with the organization to be approved by the council. The 11 council members present at a special meeting unanimously adopted the proposal.

But Barrett vetoed the measure on March 9th. “The adoption of this file sets a precedent for special treatment of individual vendors, those under contract and those seeking to do business with the City,” wrote Barrett in a two-page letter. “It opens the City up to both allegations and liability for improper conduct, and goes against the City Charter.”

That didn’t sway the council. The body voted 11-0 on Tuesday morning to back Perez, overriding the veto. It was the first action taken by the Common Council in its new format where most members are participating via video conference call as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Mayor has had over a year to meet with department heads to resolve this situation,” said Perez.

Ald. Scott Spiker asked for the City Attorney to weigh in. But the council never got to the point of calling the independent City Attorney’s Office. Two votes to hold the matter and allow an attorney to weigh in were defeated.

“I don’t mean to beat a dead horse here, but we do have a phone number that obviously after this last vote we opted not to even try,” said Ald. Mark Borkowski. “We do have a phone number that we’re not even willing to make the effort to call.”

But Perez and others felt the City Attorney had an opportunity to weigh in.

“They’ve had more than ample opportunity to do so,” said Perez. He said the City Attorney’s Office finds itself in a weird situation with Friends of Housing. The organization has a number of contracts with the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee (HACM), and the City Attorney has represented the latter on evictions.

“I find it extremely odd where one branch is taking Friends of Housing to court over nuisance activity and holding them accountable and another branch is representing HACM and Friends of Housing on evictions,” said Perez.

Other members were concerned with what the mayor included in his veto message. “I think it was highly inappropriate for the mayor to release the communication with the assistant city attorney,” said Ald. Nik Kovac. “That is textbook attorney-client privilege and should only be discussed in closed session.”

“I’m comfortable overriding this veto because… preventing city-owned properties from creating the kind of nuisance activity and deteriorating neighborhoods is something we should be making a priority. And frankly it was a complete canard, and an inappropriate canard, for the mayor to throw out there” said Kovac. “If the city attorney wanted to raise legal questions they would have raised them, they would have been here to raise them.”

Perez needed 10 votes to override the veto and found 11. No one voted against the override.

With no formal opinion from the City Attorney, council members Ashanti Hamilton, Milele A. Coggs, Michael Murphy and Spiker abstained from voting on the veto override.

Friends of Housing is operated as a 501(c)(3) charitable non-profit. The entity, which is based out of HACM’s Convent Hill development, manages the Berryland, Carver Park, Cherry Court, Convent Hill, Convent Hill Gardens, Highland Gardens, Lapham Park, Northlawn, Olga Village, Project Restore, Reverend Davila, Southlawn, Westlawn, Victory Manor and multiple scattered site properties for the housing authority. The entity was originally created by HACM in 1996.

This isn’t the first time Perez has taken issue with the Friends of Housing. In November 2018, he was interviewed by Fox 6 Now with regards to an investigation into a Friends of Housing employee that was ultimately caught using city property to work on his own home alongside a city employee. Friends of Housing terminated the employee and the city employee was disciplined.

For more on the resolution, see our coverage from February. You can read Barrett’s entire veto letter on Urban Milwaukee.

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Related Legislation: File 181544

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