Jeramey Jannene

Milwaukee Health Commissioner Resigns

Kirsten Johnson resigns after two years on job. New commissioner will be sixth in six years.

By - Jan 10th, 2023 01:42 pm
Kirsten Johnson. Photo courtesy of the City of Milwaukee.

Kirsten Johnson. Photo courtesy of the City of Milwaukee.

Milwaukee again needs a new health commissioner.

Kirsten Johnson submitted her resignation Monday to Mayor Cavalier Johnson. Her last day is scheduled to be March 3.

When she was appointed in January 2021, Johnson was the city’s fifth health commissioner in three years. She was the latest commissioner to take the difficult job following the January 2018 ouster of Bevan K. Baker over issues with the city’s childhood lead poisoning prevention program.

“This has been the hardest professional decision I have ever made. I know the implications for my team, you, and the city. I am also heartbroken. Leading this department and serving Milwaukee residents has been the greatest privilege and honor of my career,” wrote Johnson, a Milwaukee resident who previously led the joint Washington Ozaukee County Health Department, in a resignation letter.

“Commissioner Johnson has served my administration with distinction. She started in the top role at the Milwaukee Health Department in a pandemic-challenged time. She has restructured and energized the department, handled contentious issues, and managed day-to-day operations,” said Mayor Johnson, no relation to the commissioner, in a statement. “She will depart city government with my gratitude and best wishes on her next professional engagement.”

The commissioner’s resignation letter does not indicate what she will do next. The mayor’s office confirmed that the commissioner was not asked to resign and that the mayor is happy she has chosen to stay until March. The job, appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council, is regarded as one of the most difficult in city government.

Johnson’s most visible role at the health department was managing the city’s COVID-19 response during a period when vaccines became available and the merits of maintaining a mask mandate were heavily debated (Johnson did not favor a city-only mandate). But she also brought in a new team of deputy commissioners and led the overhaul or reconfiguration of many programs.

“The culture of the City of Milwaukee Health Department has been reset. When I walked in my first day it was clear there was a culture of retaliation, fear and exhaustion. We may still be exhausted but staff feel empowered to speak up, think outside the box and do what is best for our city,” wrote Johnson in her resignation letter.

The letter touts the department’s work to create and implement a state-mandated improvement plan, address continued failures of the lead program and finalize a strategic plan.

“The MHD Lead Program has completely turned around. We are the highest rated lead program in the country by [the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development]. We have built the infrastructure to maintain a comprehensive lead program with our community partners,” wrote the commissioner.

“I am consistently proud of the work done by the incredible team at the Milwaukee Health Department,” the commissioner said in a statement issued by the mayor’s office. “It’s a rare privilege to work alongside and lead a team of passionate, hard-working, committed, and caring individuals. Resigning from my position with the City of Milwaukee is not a decision made lightly, and I am confident in the team’s ability to carry on the work of the department following my departure.”

Johnson replaced interim commissioner Marlaina Jackson, who served in the role from September 2020 to early 2021. Jeanette Kowalik served as commissioner for two years before resigning to take a health policy job in Washington D.C. She is now a health policy consultant. Patricia McManus served as a Common Council-appointed interim commissioner following Baker’s ouster.

Kowalik was the only one of the three to be given the job on a permanent basis, but resigned in late 2020 alongside hundreds of other public health leaders as the COVID-19 pandemic radically transformed the nature of the public health leadership. Based on Johnson’s planned resignation date, her tenure will end up being approximately two weeks shorter than Kowalik’s.

Mayor Johnson, in a statement, said he has initiated a process to find a replacement.

The health department oversees everything from the city’s response to disease outbreaks to the Office of Violence Prevention. Under state law, the health commissioner is the only public health official in Milwaukee who can order a quarantine and impose local health orders.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this article incorrectly cited Johnson as the longest-tenured commissioner since Baker.

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One thought on “Milwaukee Health Commissioner Resigns”

  1. lccfccoop2 says:

    Thanks to Kirsten Johnson for her work. I personally benefitted from the vaccine rollout and administration. While my friends were rooting around finding frustration at Walgreens and CVS I just told everyone to use the free city service. Efficient, competent and friendly. Now how many times do you hear that about a government program. Milwaukee at its best.

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