New City Health Commissioner Approved
Kirsten Johnson's appointment sails through council.
Despite the fact that the City of Milwaukee Health Commissioner’s role has taken on outsized importance given the COVID-19 pandemic, the approval process was radically more straight forward than it was before the pandemic.
The Common Council confirmed Kirsten Johnson to serve in the role Tuesday on a 12-2-1 vote. Council members Khalif Rainey and Russell W. Stamper, II voted against her confirmation. Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs abstained without explanation.
Johnson will be the city’s third commissioner in the past year. She replaces Marlaina Jackson, who served as interim commissioner following the September 2020 resignation of Jeanette Kowalik. Jackson will return to her role as deputy commissioner of public health, a role she has held since April 2020.
Kowalik started in September 2018. She followed the forced resignation of Bevan K. Baker, the subsequent controversial rejection of one potential interim commissioner and the equally controversial appointment of Patricia McManus as interim commissioner.
The new commissioner is currently the director of the joint Washington Ozaukee County Health Department. She worked in the office of Representative Ron Kind (D-La Crosse) as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation health policy fellow for a one year period starting in 2018.
During her confirmation hearing, she expressed frustration with political disagreements that left her unable to use the suburban department’s authority to control the spread of the virus. Her department was releasing names of businesses and organizations with disease outbreaks before a lawsuit halted the practice.
“This has been an incredibly difficult 10 or 11 months for me,” said Johnson. She said even if she could impose health orders she would have issues with enforcement. “Straight forward answer: Do I think what we’ve done is enough? No.”
Johnson earned a master of public health degree from Tulane University in 2003. She earned her bachelor’s degree at the UW-Madison in 1997.
She won’t have to relocate to take the job. Johnson has lived in Milwaukee since the fall of 2019 and her children attend Milwaukee Public Schools.
Johnson said a passion for social justice drew her to take the Milwaukee job.
“I believe deeply in social justice. I really believe that I can do justice to the needs we are facing in Milwaukee and I can be at the table and have those hard conversations,” said Johnson. “I just think there is some great work to be done and I know I am the person to lead it.”