Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Council Split On Hiring Its Own Attorney

Just the latest twist in the council's ongoing conflict with City Attorney Tearman Spencer.

By - Dec 14th, 2021 05:12 pm
Milwaukee City Hall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee City Hall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The Milwaukee Common Council won’t give itself the authority to hire a special counsel after all.

On Nov. 23 the council voted unanimously to give itself the authority to hire special legal counsel on a case-by-case basis. The move, championed by council members Jose G. Perez and Robert Bauman, was originally designed to accompany a reallocation of an assistant city attorney position from the City Attorney’s Office to the council’s control.

It’s part of a long-simmering disagreement between a majority of the council and elected City Attorney Tearman Spencer.

But Mayor Tom Barrett has inserted himself into the disagreement on multiple occasions. He vetoed the budget reallocation, and though a majority of the council members voted to override his veto, they didn’t have the necessary 10 votes for an override.

The same situation played out on Tuesday, but with a more stark reversal. The original vote was unanimous, while the final override vote was 8-7.

“The important language in the file is the council may hire counsel,” said Bauman in encouraging his colleagues to support the override. He noted the measure allowing the counsel to hire outside counsel when deemed necessary passed unanimously.

“Part of the reason it was unanimous was because of the lack of clarity at the time we voted,” said Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs.

But Perez said the confusion was due to the city attorney’s failure to provide a legally required endorsement or ejection that the proposal had been reviewed and was legal and enforceable. Spencer had opposed the change and it was the only file Spencer’s office had failed to review. It submitted the necessary signature while the November meeting was already underway.

Tuesday’s vote fell on racial lines, as many Spencer issues have.

All seven of the Black council members voted against overriding Barrett’s veto: Coggs, Ashanti Hamilton, Nikiya Dodd, Khalif Rainey, Chantia Lewis, Russell W. Stamper, II and Cavalier Johnson.

Spencer, first elected in April 2020, has claimed that one of the leading reasons he is having challenges is people aren’t accepting of a new Black leader at City Hall and that harassment claims against him are “unfounded.” The City Attorney’s Office is seeing sustained, high turnover including employees that Spencer hired leaving. It recently hired an individual that worked for an anti-Muslim group. Spencer, meanwhile, has blamed the media for his issues.

New city human resources director, Makda Fessahaye, who is Black, refuted Spencer’s harassment innocence claim and said the harassment investigation of Spencer she oversaw stopped because of the limits on the policy. “We did, however, find that his actions were inappropriate and unbecoming of his position as the city attorney,” she said in April.

And although it’s now not authorized to hire its own special counsel, the Common Council is paying for one as a result of a conflict with Spencer.

Spencer previously refused to sign a council-revised development agreement for The Couture apartment tower and accused Bauman of an ethical violation for negotiating with the development team. The council agreed to a compromise with Spencer, whereby the city attorney signed the agreement in exchange for the city spending up to $100,000 to determine who was right. Attorney Michael Maistelman was the lone respondent to a $50,000 request for proposals to serve as a special counsel for the council. The council also authorized up to $50,000 to hire retired judge Chuck Kahn to serve as the arbitrator.

Categories: City Hall, Politics, Weekly

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