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.
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.
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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