Jeramey Jannene

Tearman Spencer Vs. City Hall

New City Attorney is quite public with his frustrations with those he is tasked with representing.

By - Apr 29th, 2021 05:24 pm
City Attorney Tearman Spencer speaks at a press conference on June 12th. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

City Attorney Tearman Spencer speaks at a press conference on June 12th. File photo by Jeramey Jannene.

When political newcomer Tearman Spencer upset a 36-year incumbent to become Milwaukee’s new City Attorney last April, change was inevitable.

Past City Attorney Grant Langley, who multiple City Hall insiders described in recent years as “semi-retired” to Urban Milwaukee, was a quiet presence. Spencer has been the opposite.

The new City Attorney finds himself at odds with council members, the head of human resources and some of the attorneys that report to him.

Spencer was the subject of a harassment investigation triggered by complaints from six female staffers in late 2020, and only cleared of any discipline when the Department of Employee Relations found the anti-harassment policy doesn’t apply to elected officials.

Appearing before the Finance & Personnel Committee on Wednesday, he reiterated his belief that the allegations were “unfounded” and “false.” He said they were a result of a Black person taking a position of power and wanting change. “The playbook has been written and played over and over many, many times,” said Spencer.

But Department of Employee Relations director Makda Fessahaye said the allegations weren’t unfounded. “That is not the result of the investigation,” she said. “The investigation found that we could not hold him accountable for the anti-harassment policy and that there was nothing illegal that we found.”

“We did, however, find that his actions were inappropriate and unbecoming of his position as the City Attorney. So I want to make sure that is clear because he continues to say that they are unfounded,” she said. “There were multiple witnesses to the actions that were mentioned in the investigation.”

Spencer said allegations that he touched a female employee’s knee or commented on an employee’s nice calves were “flat out lies.” But he admitted he told an employee he could tell they were a runner based on their legs. “I will be the first to admit that those statements are inappropriate, but does it rise to the level of sexual harassment?”

Fessahaye explicitly passed on responding.

Spencer told the committee that he now doesn’t give one-on-one management to assistant city attorneys, instead working through deputies and a chief of staff. “It is imperative I have someone to buffer my interactions with the staff,” he said.

The Association of Municipal Attorneys of Milwaukee hired law firm Hawks Quindel to represent its interests related to “ongoing concerns about the work environment in the City Attorney’s office.” A letter to the city says attorneys should be free from retaliation for participation in an investigation.

But the investigation isn’t the only issue. Spencer, who leads an office of 65 full-time equivalent employees including 40 attorneys, has seen staff turnover.

Chief of staff Kimberly Walker, who Spencer worked for months to bring aboard, is leaving in May. Scott Brown, one of four deputies, is leaving. Another deputy position is already empty.

In total, the office will have lost at least 13 employees since Spencer took office.

Spencer claims he is working to straighten out the office and has the city’s best interests at heart. But he’s also now engaged in a war of words with council members on multiple fronts.

“This culture of political finger-pointing, shifting blame, and promulgating unfounded, politically-charged statements does not result in positive outcomes,” he wrote in a January letter regarding the legal uncertainty regarding the Fire & Police Commission‘s demotion of Alfonso Morales.

“It is becoming increasingly difficult to garner and nourish a team approach when we are constantly being picked on and bickered [at] by not just the media, which I don’t mind, but it appears I am getting this from the council,” said Spencer on Wednesday.

Council members have raised concerns with the harassment policy’s limitations, the turnover and the practices of at least one of Spencer’s new hires.

Deputy city attorney Odalo J. Ohiku was hired and allowed to continue handling cases. Spencer previously said he gave the outside hire six months to wind down the work.

But Wednesday Alderman Michael Murphy questioned if that was actually happening.

“I want to be assured that he’s not taking any new cases and he’s wrapping up with all his cases right now,” said Murphy, noting that the website for his namesake small firm still solicits new business. “The six months have expired, that’s why I’m asking the question.”

“I can no more assure what he is doing that than what I can assure your intentions are,” said Spencer.

“The difference is you’re his boss so you can tell him he can’t take any more cases,” said Murphy.

Spencer said he would be meeting with the deputy later in the week. “After we have had an opportunity to discuss that I am sure I will be able to respond to your question,” said Spencer.

“This is a pretty straightforward question,” responded the alderman.

“What I asked him to do is to dissolve that obligation that he has so he can put full attention to the office,” said Spencer.

Spencer said Ohiku was being unfairly singled out and that the city allows others to do outside, non-conflicting work. But Murphy read from the employee manual that showed that attorneys doing outside legal work needed to do it outside of normal work hours or take vacation as well as a number of steps to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest.

The City Attorney said he is looking for additional outside hires for the two new deputies. He said he offered the posts to two women already working for the office, but they turned him down.

“What I need to have at my side is loyalty and to know that whomever I have in that position I can trust. And that has been shown to me from some of the other dispersions and things that have taken place internally,” he said.

“Loyalty wouldn’t be on the top of my list when I’m trying to hire people, but it’s on the top of many other peoples,” said Ald. Nik Kovac.

Ald. Robert Bauman has been critical of Spencer’s hiring outside firms to represent the city. Cade Law Group has been retained on the Morales matter and the Judiciary & Legislation Committee approved hiring Nathan & Kamionski for up to $100,000 of work related to a $12 million claim filed related to a vacated homicide conviction.

“If this is the new precedent that every complicated case is going to involve the hiring of outside counsel, just so you realize, people may start raising the question of, well, do we need this many city attorneys if the hard stuff is going to be farmed out,” said Bauman on Monday. “I’m not raising it now, far be it for me to make that suggestion but you might have some council members at some point wondering whether we need this many in-house attorneys when we start farming out a significant percentage of work.”

Spencer argued that his predecessor Langley used outside counsel during his tenure but the council was not as critical of the practice then.

This exchange was the second time in two days that Bauman and Spencer went head to head. The two sparred the day before over whether the council has the ability to amend tax incremental financing proposals. The Couture agreement necessitated hiring a third party, announced Tuesday as former judge Chuck Kahn, to determine whether Bauman’s deal on the project was legal.

“I’m comfortable that what we’re doing is 100% legal and appropriate, we’ve done it before and I think the City Attorney’s opinion was frankly ridiculous,” Bauman said of Spencer blocking both The Couture deal from being signed and a new amendment to the Milwaukee Tool deal.

Categories: City Hall, Politics, Weekly

4 thoughts on “Tearman Spencer Vs. City Hall”

  1. maryglass says:

    4-29-21

    My. My. Jeramey Jannene, Urban Milwaukee. Such media “violence” by you and your online journalism. Your level of reporting has reached a bottom-level of unprofessional news reporting with cheap bias comments about “our selection” of city attorney – those 61% voters that put him in office.

    Yes. He is dealing and playing the hand dealt.
    Yes. The needed staff for operation of the City Attorney’s office has been “interrupted” with innuendo sound bites by those you are maligning him with – Ald. Michael Murphy-10th District, Ald. Nicholas Kovac-3rd District, and Robert Bauman-4th District.

    Why isn’t Makda Fessahayee, Director of Employee Relations seeking ways to correct the wrong done by her predecessor and provide a level of maturity for our city in creating a Harassment policy for the elected officials, i.e. Michael Murphy, Nicholas Kovac, Robert Bauman, Tom Barrett, Caviler Johnson, Spencer Coggs and others. Know that there are many suits and charges that are hidden for the moment – men and women.

    He needs to clean out his office of bad actors who have more on their agenda than why they were hired. That’s straight up.

    It would appear Attorney Tearman Spencer is besieged by mislabeling and untruthful tags – embattled and sexual harassment – by the mob of disgruntles that are of the city government, outside arbitrary powers, and media.

    No. He’s not of the status quo outliers that are inside of our city-county-state government stealing and lying. He is for making the city of Milwaukee more and more a city of and by the Milwaukeeans, We, the People.

    No. He will not allow you to marginalize him – and we got his back.

    He will call a “spade” a “spade”.
    No. He is not Caucasian and of the old boys group. That’s the problem for many.

    Word Up.

    We are a proud people with amazing tenacity. It is insulting to us, African Americans, who make up the largest population in Milwaukee and race who help build city hall but not a significant journalism word is mentioned of their conscience choice to anchor hard labor to build the city hall of Milwaukee. The one and lonely photo fails to give our men the honor, right, dignity, and honesty of their names.

    How do you think this 75-year-old African American woman – MARY GLASS – feels about the ruthlessness, greed, disrespect, and discrimination We, the People, continue to see from Caucasian monopoly-oligopoly commandeering groups taking massive amounts of property taxes and federal funding we bring to the 96.8 square miles annually, but others enjoy like Bublr Bike president and co-founder Attorney Bruce Keyes, Foley Lardner law firm, came twice to our coffers for backing?

    He came to our city coffers and got start-up money to build his bike empire. Bruce and friends – you are one – allowed the bikes to be put in Caucasian areas ONLY – downtown, UW-M, Marquette, Waters & Wisconsin, Jefferson, 3rd Ward, North Avenue Common to name a few. Keys hired only Caucasians to work at Bublr Bike. He has now franchised to Glendale and neighboring areas. As well as, mainlined it to Milwaukee County Transit System.

    What’s your beef?

    He’s a brother. His back is straight. He earned the position. He Welcomes truth telling. We ask that you meet him half-way with “integrity”.

    He is OUR – Milwaukee’s 1st African American City Attorney?
    Stop Disrespecting him Jeramey. STOP IT!

  2. sbaldwin001 says:

    Maryglass: I feel as though you are escalating this into a race issue rather than a performance issue. It’s fair that City Attorney Spencer be given some time and some breaks in adjusting to the climate of the current office and making changes he deems necessary for best performance. However, it is also fair for journalist to report on important trends such as the increased use of outside council and failure to clamp down on violations of employment rules and conflicts of interest.

    Milwaukee needs to have a reputation for clean and efficient government if it is to continue receiving state and federal assistance in its efforts to fight poverty and discrimination.

  3. Mingus says:

    Over the years, I have found Jeramey’s stories as fact based and reflecting good journalism. From all of the incidents that have been reported, Mr. Spencer appears to have poor management skills that need to be addressed by the Common Council.

  4. lccfccoop2 says:

    Jeramey Jannene is one of the hardest working and thorough reporters in the area. I trust his reporting.

    I’m a retired attorney. I voted for Tearman Spencer because I thought it was time for a change and Langley had stayed too long. I figured there would be a learning curve because he was coming from a small private practice and not one specializing in municipal law.

    Now I’m worried. The issues are:

    Did Spencer’ royally screw up the Morales situation and give advice that is going to cost taxpayers unnecessarily – not to mention making a bad police situation worse?

    Does Spencer know or care about the rudiments of workplace harassment law in the 21st century? He appears not to – bad for us if he does not get and take good advice instead of immediately claiming he is being mistreated.

    Does Spencer intend to follow up on having his new hire close out his private practice? Aldermen are not wrong to press this issue.

    These are the issues I think are important.

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