Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Council Wants Control Over Police and Fire Chiefs

Seeking changes to state law to give city's elected officials control.

By - Dec 15th, 2020 04:11 pm
Milwaukee City Hall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee City Hall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee’s 135-year-old Fire & Police Commission (FPC), often billed as the most powerful independent public safety oversight body in the country, will lose some of its power if the Common Council gets its way.

The council passed three separate resolutions Tuesday calling on the city’s lobbying team to seek changes to state law governing the hiring and firing of the police and fire chiefs and the structure of the commission.

“I think it’s a reform that’s frankly long overdue,” said leading sponsor Alderman Robert Bauman. He wants the police and fire chiefs treated like every other cabinet appointee: the mayor appoints them and the council confirms them. He said the cabinet structure for department heads results in leaders that are responsive to the city’s elected officials. The current structure for the chiefs gives the authority of the hiring and firing to appointed, part-time commissioners.

“They know we have the ultimate power,” said Bauman of the cabinet members. “The Fire & Police Commission and the chiefs know we have no power.” He said the general public doesn’t understand this and blames the council for faults of the commission or chiefs.

“All of our interactions have shown we have a tough time getting the chiefs to take us seriously, and not just us, but the people frankly,” said Ald. Nik Kovac. He said the council passing a lobbying request to be able to fire the chiefs was one of the things that led then-police chief Edward A. Flynn to retire in 2018. “Two thirds of us said we wanted the power to fire him and he was gone, I think, the next month.” The council approved the request in November 2017 and Flynn retired in February.

Mayor Tom Barrett vetoed the original council request to be able to fire the chiefs, though the council overrode him on a 10-5 vote. The Legislature didn’t enact the change, nor did it give Barrett and the council the ability to hire the chiefs (a change which Barrett supported).

Now the council is making the requests again, and, last week, a Barrett aide said the mayor is likely to veto the removal measure again.

Bauman said he believes the Legislature would give the mayor and council the ability to hire the chief, but not fire the chief.

But some council members don’t believe changing state statute 62.50 is a good idea now, with the commission in the process of hiring a new chief and the Legislature controlled by Republicans.

“I’m worried we would erode public confidence in their decision if we suddenly said they shouldn’t have that power anymore,” said Kovac of the deadlocked commissioners.

Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic, who lost a substantial amount of power at the hands of the Legislature while on the county board, said she’s a no vote. “No thank you, we don’t want the state in our business, no,” said the alderwoman. “I don’t need the state meddling in any more Milwaukee business.”

“Once the state gets under the hood of 62.50 bad things are going to happen,” said Kovac. “I guarantee it.” He then voted for two of the three requests.

The council approved the lobbying request to hire the chiefs on a 9-5-1 vote. Kovac, Dimitrijevic, Milele A. Coggs, Scott Spiker and Russell W. Stamper, II voted in opposition. JoCasta Zamarripa, still serving out her term as an assembly representative, abstained.

The council approved the lobbying request to be able to fire the chiefs with a two-thirds vote, on a 11-3-1 vote. Dimitrijevic, Spiker and Cavalier Johnson voted no. Kovac said he was emboldened to vote for it given its low odds of passing. Zamarripa abstained.

The council needs 10 votes to override a veto.

Who Should Hire the FPC Executive Director?

The third measure the council approved would actually give the Fire & Police Commission board more power, at the expense of the mayor. It would reverse a 1988 change to state law that gave newly-elected John Norquist the power to appoint the commission’s full-time executive director. The commissioners would again hire their own director.

The director leads the commission’s full-time staff while serving as a non-voting secretary to the board. The FPC is currently in control of all hiring, firing, discipline and policies for the city’s public safety departments.

“Frankly we have a completely illogical staff structure in the Fire & Police Commission,” said Bauman. “Up until we had a big argument about a year ago they didn’t have an office, they didn’t have a phone number.”

In January 2020, Bauman and others expressed their disbelief that the commissioners didn’t have a city-issued cell phone or email address. If members of the public wanted to submit a comment they had to speak at a public meeting or email the commission staff, who do not report directly to the commissioners themselves. “This is an absurdity that the most powerful commission is standing out there naked,” said Bauman at the time. The problem was corrected by outgoing director Griselda Aldrete after a controversial meeting.

A prior iteration of the council made the lobbying request in 2018, with the recently elected body resubmitting it Tuesday. The council approved the lobbying request on a 10-4-1 vote with Dimitrijevic, Coggs, Michael Murphy and Chantia Lewis in objection. Zamarripa abstained.

As he did in 2018, Barrett is expected to veto the measure.

The council voted unanimously to confirm Barrett’s appointment of Leon W. Todd, III to serve as the new executive director.

The reappointment of Commissioner Ann Wilson is being held so she can address pending litigation in closed session. Acting FPC director Kyle Mirehouse requested the wrong background check for Amanda Avalos, a pending appointee. The council did not vote on her appointment on Tuesday, confirmation of which would have violated a city ordinance requiring the Milwaukee County Sheriff‘s Office to complete the check before a vote can be taken.

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