Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Dettmer’s Appointment As Public Works Head Is Historic

First female to lead DPW, first time that no major mayor-appointed leaders are white males.

By - Dec 20th, 2021 12:15 pm
Karen Dettmer, center with plaque, accepts a Wisconsin Policy Forum award with MWW staff. Photo from Milwaukee Water Works.

Karen Dettmer, center with plaque, accepts a Wisconsin Policy Forum award with MWW staff. Photo from Milwaukee Water Works.

Milwaukee Water Works Superintendent Karen Dettmer will serve as interim commissioner of the Department of Public Works.

The announcement was made Monday morning by outgoing Mayor Tom Barrett. She’ll replace Jeff Polenske who “retired” Friday to begin a second career in the private sector.

“In every job she has held in city government, Karen has exceeded expectations by demonstrating leadership and accomplishments,” said Barrett in a statement. “This is a well-earned appointment. Karen is ideally positioned to direct the Department of Public Works into the future.”

Dettmer’s appointment is a notable one.

It’s the first time a woman has led the Department of Public Works, which includes the city-owned waterworks.

It also is the first time that all of the major mayoral appointees have been women or people of color.

The commissioner of the Department of City Development is Lafayette Crump, a Black male. The Milwaukee Health Commissioner is Kirsten Johnson, a white woman. The commissioner of the Department of Neighborhood Services is Erica Roberts, a white woman. The director of the Department of Administration is Sharon Robinson, a Black woman. The head of the Department of Employee Relations is Makda Fessahaye, a Black woman. The head of the Milwaukee Public Library is Joan Johnson, a Black woman. The Milwaukee Election Commission director is Claire Woodall-Vogg, a white woman.

The highest-ranking, appointed white males are now either Assessment Commissioner Steve Miner (who intends to retire in 2022) or City Engineer Jerrel Kruschke.

Police Chief Jeffrey Norman (a Black male) and Fire Chief Aaron Lipski (a white male) are not mayoral appointees.

When Barrett resigns, expected by Dec. 28, all of the citywide elected offices will be held by non-white males for the first time in the city’s history. City Treasurer Spencer Coggs, City Attorney Tearman Spencer and acting-mayor-in-waiting Cavalier Johnson are all Black males. City Comptroller Aycha Sawa is a white woman.

Johnson, who previously proposed splitting the Department of Public Works in two with a new transportation-only focused department, was consulted on Dettmer’s interim appointment.

The interim appointment is not subject to council confirmation, but whoever is chosen as permanent nominee must be confirmed by the council.

About Karen Dettmer

Dettmer has led Milwaukee Water Works since Feb. 2019. With approximately 350 employees and a nearly $100 million budget, it is the largest public utility in Wisconsin.

“I’m honored that Mayor Barrett and incoming Mayor Cavalier Johnson have entrusted me with the great responsibility of serving as Interim Commissioner of the Department of Public Works,” said Dettmer in a statement after this article was first published. “Serving as the Superintendent of the Milwaukee Water Works is extremely rewarding. Water Works employees take tremendous pride in providing our nearly 900,000 customers with safe, reliable drinking water every day. I’m excited by the opportunity to continue overseeing the division and to further the work we started in building a more equitable, inclusive, and diverse workforce.”

The licensed engineer previously served as the Public Works Coordination Manager for the Department of Public Works from 2016 to 2019. She spent almost 10 years before that in various roles with the Department of City Development and Redevelopment Authority of the City of Milwaukee.

Dettmer holds a bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering and master’s degree in environmental engineering from the Milwaukee School of Engineering.

A resident of the city’s East Side, she worked as an engineering consultant before joining the city.

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Categories: Weekly

2 thoughts on “City Hall: Dettmer’s Appointment As Public Works Head Is Historic”

  1. Trmott says:

    I’m puzzled why it’s notable that none of the appointed position-holders are (so-called) white males? Is this supposed to signal some kind of “achievement”? I guess if it’s widely held that all white males are per se incompetent or corrupt or unworthy for some reason(s), then pointing out that there are none in positions to lead certain designated public sector organizations could be laudable and/or noteworthy.

    As in, s/he says: “none of the critters now roaming my basement are rats; I got rid of every last one of them and I’m fine with the mice and spiders and roaches.”

  2. Trmott says:

    Postscript: Dettmer’s qualifications appear to be excellent and she seems especially meritorious. Wish I could raise a congratulatory toast to her. Her service and selection have nothing to do with my point; rather it’s the presumption that we’re better off if we get rid of all the white males in Milwaukee’s positions of authority. I hesitate to say, “what did WE do wrong, anyway?” because I could probably come up with many things for inclusion on THAT list, similar to the one my wife would rattle off!

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