Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Dr. T Confirmed As Health Commissioner

Michael Totoraitis is the new leader of city health department.

By - May 9th, 2023 11:19 am
City Clerk Jim Owczarski (left) shakes Health Commissioner Michael Totoraitis' hand after administering the oath of office. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

City Clerk Jim Owczarski (left) shakes Health Commissioner Michael Totoraitis’ hand after administering the oath of office. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

There’s a new captain at the helm of the Milwaukee Health Department.

On Tuesday, the Common Council confirmed Michael Totoraitis, Ph.D., as the new health commissioner. Or as Alderman Scott Spiker referred to him, that’s “Dr. T.”

Totoraitis is the sixth commissioner to lead the department in five years after then-mayor Tom Barrett ousted Bevan K. Baker in January 2018 following revelations of failures with the childhood lead poisoning prevention program.

Totoraitis replaces Kirsten Johnson, who announced her resignation in January after nearly two years on the job. Johnson was later appointed Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

Totoraitis most recently served as the director of health data and evaluation within the department.

“It puts me in a very unique role to move quickly into the commissioner role,” said Totoraitis to the Public Safety & Health Committee on April 27. “I sought this position out, and I’m extremely committed to this city.”

The health commissioner, often described as one of the most difficult jobs in city government, is the lone public official that can order a quarantine of an individual and possess a substantial amount of regulatory power to combat disease outbreaks like the COVID-19 pandemic.

The nominee intends to keep the current leadership team in place, including acting commissioner Tyler Weber returning to his role as deputy commissioner of environmental health.

Totoraitis said the culture of the department reset under Johnson’s leadership.

He has been with the department in his current role since September 2021. Before earning his Ph.D. in public and community health from the Medical College of Wisconsin in 2021, Totoraitis was a program supervisor with Safe & Sound, a violence prevention research coordinator with the health department’s Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission and a grants analyst with Milwaukee County. He holds a bachelor’s degree in criminology and law studies from Marquette University.

Mayor Cavalier Johnson nominated Totoraitis for the role earlier this month after what his office said was a national search.

“I am very pleased Mike has accepted my offer to lead the city’s public health efforts. His experience, education, and character give him a solid background to take on the role of Commissioner,” said Johnson in an April statement. “Mike is well connected with people and organizations in our city, so he is set to build on the partnerships the Health Department has in Milwaukee.”

Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs abstained from voting on the commissioner’s confirmation Tuesday. She declined to elaborate on her reasoning after the meeting. The remaining council vote was unanimous.

Totoraitis took his oath of office with City Clerk Jim Owczarski shortly after the meeting concluded.

For more on Totoraitis’ views on violence prevention, lead abatement and the long-term direction of the department, see our coverage of his April 27 confirmation hearing.

Following Baker’s ouster, the council rejected Barrett’s interim nominee and appointed Patricia McManus as the interim commissioner. Jeanette Kowalik was the first commissioner to be given the job on a permanent basis. She served as commissioner for two years before resigning in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic to take a health policy job in Washington D.C. and is now a health policy consultant. Then-deputy Marlaina Jackson assumed the role on an interim basis from September 2020 to early 2021, when Johnson became the second individual over that period to be given the job on a permanent basis.

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