Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Turmoil, Toxic Work Environment at City Attorney’s Office

Resignation forms cite ethical violations, poor treatment of women & more by Tearman Spencer.

By - Sep 15th, 2021 05:22 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 12, 2020. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

In the case of Tearman Spencer vs. City Hall, there is no end in sight.

Spencer, who has sparred with the Common Council almost since the day he was elected in April 2020, once again faces accusations of mismanagement.

“I am more than a little concerned with what’s going on here. We seem to have a hemorrhaging of talent at the City Attorney’s office,” said Alderman Scott Spiker on Wednesday morning during a meeting of the Finance & Personnel Committee.

Spencer, and special deputy Celia Jackson, were seeking authorization to hire three new attorneys, almost 10% of the office’s authorized roster of 35 assistant attorneys. Only 29 of the positions are currently filled.

The City Attorney has repeatedly said turnover was inevitable given that he replaced 36-year incumbent Grant Langley. Jackson, who has been on the job two months, repeated that Wednesday. But the office is now seeing turnover of those Spencer has hired.

“When I dive deeper on who’s leaving, this isn’t old white men,” said Spiker. “There is a disturbing trend of people leaving the City Attorney’s office.”

“We are doing our best to create a new City Attorney’s office if you will,” said Jackson. “I know that there are a number of people of color that have left, but a number have been hired recently.” She asked for patience.

Spencer took a more aggressive tack. He accused Spiker of holding a vendetta, “expelling diatribe” and having “a serious problem.”

“The facts will speak for themselves if you really want to look at the facts,” said Spencer.

But the facts show an increasing number of people are leaving, and as Spiker noted, they’re not old white men.

Spencer’s office has lost 12 attorneys and two staff officers this year, up from nine in 2020 (seven attorneys including Langley). In 2021, two were resignations and three were people transferring to other departments. The remainder, according to a Department of Employee Relations (DER) report, resigned.

The DER report goes back to 2017 and shows that the last two years were the highest for attorneys leaving the department. None of the other years show more than five attorneys leaving.

Of the 12 attorneys who left in 2021, eight were hired in 2020 and three were deputies, the department’s top rank. Seven of the 14 departures to date in 2021 were Black employees. Seven were females. Included in both of those figures is Spencer’s handpicked special deputy Kimberly Walker, who departed in May.

Spencer has faced allegations of harassment from female employees. He said the allegations were “false” and “unfounded” and a result of a Black person taking a position of power and wanting change. But the city’s human relations head, Makda Fessahaye, who is also Black, said that wasn’t true and that the investigation ended only when it was determined the anti-harassment policy didn’t apply to elected officials.

Common Council members were quick to demand a change. Spencer said he no longer interacts directly with assistant city attorneys, only going through deputies.

But the problems keep coming.

Resignation forms submitted by departing attorneys give reasons from “fleeing the toxic and hostile work environment” to seeking a “better work environment/more stability” in a different city department. One accuses Spencer of “ethical violations” and lying to the media with regard to the validity of employee complaints.

One departing attorney felt the problems were so widespread they just gave the “current atmosphere” as a reason for leaving and said the examples were frequently in local media.

The council remains displeased.

Spiker and others were quick to note at Wednesday’s meeting that Spencer’s facts in his latest letter to the council didn’t add up.

On Aug. 25, Spiker and five other council members sent a letter to Spencer with concerns when they learned that assistant city attorney Tyrone St. Junior was resigning to take another job. Employed by the city since 2016, St. Junior, a young, Black attorney, handled the city’s licenses and frequently interfaced with the council. He drew high praise in the letter.

“Unfortunately, he joins a long list of other attorneys who have left your office in recent months and, if rumors be true, he will not be the last before the year’s end,” wrote Spiker, Cavalier Johnson, Mark Borkowski, JoCasta Zamarripa, Chantia Lewis and Jose G. Perez.

“I have encountered delays in getting position authority to fill vacancies,” wrote Spencer in a letter that otherwise praised St. Junior and pledged to work to “exemplify the level of integrity demanded by the people of Milwaukee.”

But the committee couldn’t remember multiple delays.

Committee chair Ald. Michael Murphy asked for a report and found the committee had only made one such delay, when Spencer was believed to be trying to promote Gregg Hagopian and the council held the file for six weeks.

“Yes, there was one item we held but we held it for a darn good reason,” said Ald. Nik Kovac. “I want to be clear about that.”

Hagopian was involved in a dispute between Spencer and the council regarding The Couture‘s financing agreement. The city could end up spending $100,000 to resolve the dispute, with the issue currently pending before a third party.

“All other positions were immediately filled once I received them from the budget office,” said Murphy.

And some of those hires are already gone, as the vacancies continue in the City Attorney’s office..

For more on the acrimonious relationship between Spencer and the Common Council, see our April coverage.

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Categories: City Hall, Politics, Weekly

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