Tearman Spencer Vs. City Hall
New City Attorney is quite public with his frustrations with those he is tasked with representing.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.