Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Who Will Lead Public Works Department?

Proposal would give Mayor Johnson ability to pick non-engineer to lead key department.

By - Apr 25th, 2022 04:14 pm
Department of Public Works sanitation workers in June 2020. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Department of Public Works sanitation workers in June 2020. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Mayor Cavalier Johnson has a number of critical appointments to make, but perhaps none have so visible an impact on the community as the Commissioner of Public Works.

The Department of Public Works is responsible for a wide swath of city services, including garbage pickup, pothole repair, parking meter rates, street design and street-light replacement.

Johnson, by current law, must pick a licensed engineer to lead the department, which has a $247 million budget and 1,674 authorized positions. But a new resolution pending before the Common Council would grant Johnson the authority to choose virtually anyone for the job.

Removing the requirement could lead Johnson to break with the practice of appointing from within. All four commissioners under former mayor Tom Barrett were individuals who previously worked in DPW.

“The mayor is interested in finding the best possible candidate,” said a spokesperson for Johnson. “That might be an engineer, but not necessarily. We no longer ask the commissioner of the department, herself or himself, to draft roadway designs or sewer plans. The job is largely one of a senior executive, interacting with elected officials and residents, coordinating departmental divisions, overseeing staff and handling administrative duties.”

The mayor’s office noted that a similar requirement for the health commissioner to be a medical doctor was previously removed.

The most recent DPW commissioner, Karen Dettmer, resigned earlier this month to take an appointed position in the Biden administration working on lead lateral funding. Prior to becoming interim commissioner in December, she served as superintendent of the Milwaukee Water Works, a division of DPW.

Removing the engineering requirement would not mean the end of a cabinet-level engineer in city government. Jerrel Kruschke serves as City Engineer, an appointed position responsible for leading DPW’s Infrastructure Division. The division handles everything from filling potholes to planning new bridges. The largest of DPW’s four divisions (the other two are operations and administrative services), it has more than 1,000 employees during its summer peak.

Kruschke was given “special deputy” powers by Dettmer as part of her resignation and currently serves as the de facto commissioner until a permanent replacement is named.

The commissioner and city engineer regularly serve as the public face of DPW appearing before the Common Council and at numerous public meetings.

The requirement for a licensed engineer has been in place since 1989. It was added during a period when a series of city charter and state law changes gave the mayor power to directly appoint a cabinet, cementing Milwaukee as a strong mayor system.

Should the council approve the charter change at its regularly scheduled meeting on May 10, state law requires a 60-day waiting period for it to go into effect.

The commissioner position pays approximately $150,000 annually.

Categories: City Hall, Weekly

2 thoughts on “City Hall: Who Will Lead Public Works Department?”

  1. 45 years in the City says:

    It is a BAD idea to remove the Professional Engineer requirement. This is a professional / technical position that should be filled with properly credentialed persons.

    Remove the PE requirement and the position becomes open to partisan political hacks.

  2. Curt Harris says:

    Keep the Professional Engineer requirement for the head of the Department of Public works. At this point we don’t need any social works affecting the very technical operations of why the City has to perform these critical functions.

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