Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Troubles at Fire & Police Commission

12 staff vacancies, no director, three board vacancies. Committee grills Barrett aides for answers.

By - Nov 10th, 2020 10:15 am
Milwaukee City Hall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee City Hall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee’s Fire & Police Commission is often regarded as one of the most powerful independent public safety oversight bodies in the United States.

But to perform that function it needs actual people to be in the positions of oversight.

In May 2019 I ran a story entitled “Barrett Must Rebuild Fire & Police Board.” That’s still true today, some eighteen months later.

The commission, which consists of a nine member appointed board and 24 full-time staff members, has faced staffing shortages for over a year. It currently has 12 vacancies. The board finds itself with only six members, including one whose term expired in 2017.

The FPC has had three executive directors in just over two years. A fourth is now on the way after Griselda Aldrete resigned on October 30th.

Her chief of staff Tammy Majewski leaves at the end of the week and blamed the “current climate at City Hall” in a letter. Commissioner Raymond Robakowski resigned after less than a year in the role.

Aldrete came aboard as a highly regarded candidate in September 2019 before clashing with the Common Council on multiple occasions. She pulled out of a required confirmation process in July when it appeared the council might reject her reappointment, but previously indicated she was staying in her position until a replacement was found.

The resignations, which come as the commission is in the process of hiring a new police chief, resulted in the Common Council Steering & Rules Committee calling the administration in for a hearing Monday to discuss the issues.

Mayor Tom Barrett, who is responsible for appointing commissioners and hiring staff members, sent his staff advisor Myra Edwards and Department of Employee Relations (DER) human resources manager Kristin Urban, a former FPC employee. Majewski also appeared.

The first question from Council President Cavalier Johnson was: who is running the commission?

That would be Kyle Mirehouse said the representatives. Mirehouse is the city’s director of emergency management and communications, a job he started in late 2019 after a series of public and private sector posts.

Urban called him an “excellent choice” and said he would not receive an “acting” or “interim” title. “It’s not going to be an all-consuming addition to his current job,” she said. State law prevents him from making any appointments or disciplinary decisions. Urban said four former FPC employees now working at DER, herself included, are providing support.

A permanent replacement is still at least a month away, if not longer. Nineteen qualified applicants applied, with three individuals undergoing interviews with Barrett. “I was really, really proud of the panel we assembled and the candidates,” said the human resources manager.

Barrett will need to appoint a finalist, a move he previously said could come around Thanksgiving, and the council will need to confirm the candidate.

Council members, including Michael Murphy and Milele A. Coggs, expressed frustration at the number of disgruntled employees that have reached out and the perceived lack of action from the administration.

“There was a personnel investigation that was performed on some of those issues that is in resolution now,” said Urban. Edwards said she wasn’t privy to every circulated letter.

Murphy asked Majewski if she had received a response from the mayor’s office about her letter. “No,” she said, which Murphy expressed frustration with. (Whether her concern about climate in City Hall was about the mayor, the council or both is unclear.)

Beyond staffing the commission, which investigates complaints against police officers and firefighters in addition to supporting public safety hiring and promotions, the council would like to see a full complement of nine members on the board. Expanded from seven to nine members in recent years, the city has never filled the board.

“The mayor has made a commitment,” said Edwards. “He’s not shrinking from that commitment.”

She said the focus is now on filling Robakowski’s seat, given his surprise resignation.

“There have been a number of other things. I wouldn’t call them priorities, but our attention has needed to be in other places,” said Edwards.

The advisor said there didn’t seem to be a need to go to nine members immediately. “There hasn’t been any problem with achieving a quorum,” she said.

She said the mayor’s office has received names of possible appointees from council members. “We have had conversations with some. We have to figure out if they’re really interested and if they’re really up to the task,” she said. “It’s really time intensive. There is a lot of information.” She said “maybe” by the end of 2020 a replacement for Robakowski will be found.

“We have been waiting a very long time,” said Alderman Jose G. Perez of filling the board. “There have been several names that have been submitted.”

“I don’t know that we are even renewing folks at the rate that we should be,” said Coggs. Commissioner Ann Wilson‘s term expired in 2017 but she continues to serve until a replacement is found. Fred Crouther‘s term expired in 2019, but he was reappointed. The council has rejected two new appointments in recent years.

Murphy brought up that past chair and current commissioner Steven M. DeVougas faces a city ethics investigation and that commission chair Nelson Soler and vice chair Angela McKenzie decided not to participate in a closed session meeting to narrow the field of police chief candidates from six to three after the process was changed. Soler appeared briefly before the committee to explain that the changes caused a scheduling conflict for him. He previously said he was opposed to changing the process during a meeting described as “chaos.”

“Did that raise any red flags with the mayor?” asked Murphy of the meeting.

“I don’t know even if we can make the council understand, the various members that are concerned, that we are just as concerned,” said Edwards.

“I hope this becomes a much higher priority agenda to get this straighted out,” said Murphy.

Alderwoman Chantia Lewis, a champion of pausing the police chief search, asked a series of questions about staffing.

Majewski said that the staff still on the job is “working so hard. I just want to make sure everybody knew that.”

“I’m trying to make sure you all don’t have to work as hard going forward,” said Lewis.

Ald. Marina Dimitrijevic said the council wanted to be part of the solution, but she said the lack of planning around Aldrete’s departure was concerning. “It’s kind of odd to me to think that she would serve forever when she didn’t even get confirmed, and so I don’t know why a complete transition plan wasn’t in place,” she said.

“My hope would be we don’t have to do communication file after communication file about what is going on at the Fire & Police Commission,” said Coggs. The Steering & Rules Committee held the file so it can revisit the matter.

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