Should Mayor Appoint Police and Fire Chiefs?
Council members think system is broken; many support change in state legislation.
The heads of Milwaukee’s police and fire departments are currently selected not by the city’s elected officials, but by a 135-year-old independent body, the Fire & Police Commission. The Common Council is poised to request that be changed, striking power from the commission.
Three resolutions are pending before the council which would request the city’s lobbying team seek state law changes to give authority to the mayor to appoint the chiefs and the council to confirm them. The commission is currently in control of all hiring, firing, discipline and policies for the city’s public safety departments.
The current setup has the Fire & Police Commission board members join the board similar to cabinet nominations. The mayor appoints and the council confirms. But unlike true cabinet posts, once they’re confirmed the individuals aren’t required to do what the mayor, or council, says. The fire and police chiefs, in turn, answer only to the commission, not the council or mayor.
“I think the elected officials should have the ultimate responsibility and the ultimate authority,” said Bauman, noting that constituents already treat them as if they do.
Bauman said last week’s tie vote on picking the next chief was an example of the broken process. The commission is allowed to have up to nine members under state law, but currently has only six following a resignation. He said he wasn’t in favor of confirming Amanda Avalos, who Mayor Tom Barrett nominated prior to the tie, simply to create a deciding vote.
“The current system is certainly broken. Even in the past I thought there were a lot of holes in the system,” said Ald. Michael Murphy. He said that even before the tie, the fact that commission chair Nelson Soler and vice chair Angela McKenzie sat out closed session interviews with the chief candidates after expressing frustration with the process was another sign of how broken things are.
Barrett supports that change, said legislative liaison director Kimberly Montgomery. “If he had his preference it would be for him to remove,” she said, noting it would need to be for cause.
But Montgomery said Barrett may vote against the other two lobbying requests for state action, as he has in the past.
A 2017 request, championed by Tony Zielinski, and cosponsored by Jose G. Perez, Russell W. Stamper, II, Khalif Rainey, Borkowski and Bauman called on the state to give the council the authority to fire the chiefs on a two-thirds majority vote. The council adopted the request, Barrett vetoed it and the council overrode him. Now the body is poised to reactivate the request, with Bauman and Borkowski sponsoring the resolution.
A resolution is also pending to determine who controls the Fire & Police Commission secretary, who also serves as the executive director of the commission’s full-time staff. In 1988 the position was changed to a mayoral appointee, part of a reform package that gave Milwaukee a strong mayor system. The council in 2018, led by Robert Donovan and Zielinski, voted to request the state change it back and give control to the appointed commissioners. Barrett vetoed it and the council overrode him. Similar to the firing request, the council is poised to reactivate the state legislation request. Bauman, Murphy and Borkowski are sponsoring the resolution.
“The mayor’s position has not changed and I’m sure he would veto the file again,” said Montgomery of the resolution to strip mayoral power.
Ald. Scott Spiker mused that the changes could leave the commission with little authority, but also noted the existing setup wasn’t functioning as expected. Both he and Murphy objected to the proposal giving the council authority to fire the chief.
The committee adopted each of the requests. The full Common Council will review the lobbying requests at its December 15th meeting.
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Read more about Fire & Police Commission's Troubles here