Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

DNS Could Drop City Attorney, Hire Its Own

Council debates, then holds off proposal to help Department of Neighborhood Services.

By - Apr 12th, 2022 10:39 am
Northridge Mall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Northridge Mall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The Milwaukee Common Council continues to be publicly critical of the City Attorney’s Office.

The latest proposal before the council is to lobby for a state law change that would allow the Department of Neighborhood Services (DNS) to hire its own attorney.

Alderman Michael Murphy told members of the Judiciary & Legislation Committee on Monday that he introduced the proposal as a result of hearing concerns from DNS Commissioner Erica Roberts. He singled out the timeliness and availability of the representation the department is getting.

“I just think the fact that we don’t have a dedicated attorney representing one of the largest departments in the City of Milwaukee… speaks volumes about what their priorities are,” said Murphy.

The City Attorney’s Office has been subject to sustained turnover in recent years, with department leaders attributing it to low pay, while former attorneys and council members have blamed it on a toxic work environment.

“Obviously I realize that the concern of this body is that work is getting done and work is getting done in a productive and efficient manner,” said deputy city attorney Odalo J. Ohiku. “I have done my absolute level best to ensure that things are not remaining stagnant.”

He said sometimes things take longer because “we are doing our due diligence.” DNS is engaged in code enforcement, which includes everything from the zoning code to complicated raze orders for things like Northridge Mall.

Ohiku said he was directly staffing the department after an assistant city attorney left, but, since January, Lynnette McNeely is now handling DNS’ workload.

Special deputy Celia Jackson said McNeely is working on a provisional, 90-day contract.

“How was this person selected?” asked Ald. Jose G. Perez.

“She was actually invited by someone in management in the City Attorney’s Office,” said Jackson. At least one council member later suggested that person was Jackson.

McNeely and Jackson are listed as two of the three board members of JC Legal Resources Center, a nonprofit created to “develop civic educational curriculum, conduct training, conduct research, and promote the legal interest of African American communities in the Central City of Milwaukee.” The phone number listed for the group is the same as McNeely’s firm, the James Curtis Group.

The special deputy said the department was working to hire new attorneys, but didn’t promise that McNeely would be one of them. She said McNeely was currently only working on city issues.

Ald. Robert Bauman cut to the chase. Does Roberts support the council requesting the state law change?

“I think that’s a fair question,” said Roberts. “Ultimately, I just want to achieve the mission of the department.” She said DNS needs timely support.

Roberts said she had now begun working with McNeely.

“I think it’s fair to say we had a bit of a bumpy start. We had to get acclimated to each other’s styles and the way we would work together. We’ve since had positive meetings,” said Roberts of the contracted attorney.

“[The commissioner] must be a middle child, because she is working to please everyone here,” said Murphy.

Perez and Murphy both mentioned that DNS had lost a court case because an attorney failed to appear. Ohiku said that wasn’t true and he was awaiting a ruling from Judge Gwen Connolly. But that’s not the full story.

Online court records indicate Ohiku missed an Oct. 5 court hearing where Connolly was to consider the city’s motion to dismiss the case. Court records indicate Ohiku appeared almost an hour later and was informed the judge had ruled against the city’s motion due to the attorney’s failure to appear.

Another issue involving a sober living facility has been ongoing for 18 months, said Roberts.

“The Oxford House is an extremely frustrating case where I’ve had to put pressure on the City Attorney’s Office to be responsive to DNS,” said Spiker. He said he would continue to hold their feet to the fire.

But committee chair Ald. Ashanti Hamilton said he wanted to hold the lobbying request.

“There should be some type of pathway forward for everyone to get on the same page and see what progress looks like,” he said.

Bauman supported the hold, but said the Department of City Development showed another path forward. It created a “real estate compliance liaison officer” that effectively performed legal work and hired a deputy city attorney to fill the role. Murphy said state law was more restrictive in this case and explicitly says the attorney must come from the City Attorney’s Office.

There was one official spared from any direct criticism Monday: City Attorney Tearman Spencer. No one mentioned the elected attorney by name or title, though he has been blamed in the past for the toxic work environment in his office.

In addition to debating the DNS decision, the committee recommended the passage of a proposal intended to clarify that the City Attorney’s Office must always receive council approval to expend funds on special witnesses. “There is a resolution that led to some confusion,” said Murphy. “This tries to clear that up very clearly.”

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Related Legislation: File 211948

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