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Milwaukee Mayor Lifts Policy Prohibiting Health Dept Staff From Communicating With Elected Officials

Susan Bence
Milwaukee Public Radio
The Steering & Rules Committee grilled health department officials for more than four hours.

Update, 5:54 pm Thursday:

According to a press release issued by Ald. Bob Baumann, Mayor Barrett today lifted the policy that required health department staff get permission before communicating directly with elected officials.  The policy was discussed at Wednesday's Steering & Rules Committee where members learned for the first time of the policy's existence.

Original Story:

Health department employees are not allowed share concerns with Milwaukee Common Council members or the mayor, Angela Hagy said Wednesday at a Steering & Rules Committee meeting.

Milwaukee's Director of Disease Control and Environmental Health said, “There’s expressed department policy that all communication to the council and the mayor has to go through the commissioner." 

The information ignited outrage among committee members. Committee chair and Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton said, "There are employees who are watching, who are sending text messages and saying that this is their experience. I think this is part of the reason why this became such a big issue.”

Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio
Milwaukee Public Radio
Sandy Rotar and Angela Hagy with Milwaukee health department stated their case before the Steering & Rules Committee Wednesday.

The health department has been under a microscope since it emerged that its Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program is getting less funding, providing less remediation, and children with elevated blood lead levels have been falling through the cracks.

Because of inconsistent recordkeeping, the department couldn’t be sure it sent letters to more than 6,400 families whose children’s test results were high from 2015 through 2017.

Mayor Barrett said all of those families would be notified, and the health department quickly set up rotating free lead clinics at three health centers.

Barrett also called for an internal report from the health department. It’s that report that the Steering and Rules Committee reviewed.

The report revealed that the department did not follow protocol for at least two children tested with extremely high levels of lead by failing to test for lead in their homes before the kids returned.

Health operations manager Sandy Rotar told committee members the department has remedied the situation for those children and described initial steps the health department to restructure the lead program. “We’re starting to cross train the staff," she said. "One of the issues was that if you were in the lead program, it was separate from environmental health. We’re trying to cross train them so that we can ebb and flow based on the workload that’s needed."

Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio
Milwaukee Public Radio
Alderwoman Milele Coggs at Steering & Rules Committee meeting.

Alderwoman Milele Coggs expressed shock that others echoed. “If we’ve gotten to the point where thousands of kids could have been impacted by some lead stuff because of information sharing challenges. If this doesn’t teach us that we need to have transparency, that we need to communicate with each other and we need to make sure the people are being served, I don’t know what else will,” she said.

Coggs called the problem systemic to Milwaukee city government and said she plans to sponsor an ordinance “that says no department can restrict the communications of employees with aldermen.”

Mayor Tom Barrett did not participate in Wednesday’s meeting. He was attending an infant mortality meeting.

Barrett’s policy director Aaron Szonpinksi spoke on the mayor’s behalf: “We don’t want to, as I said before, this isn’t a hide the ball exercise. We want to be forthcoming, transparent with the public and show people how we’re going to fix this, because this is a really critical issue for all of us."

Ashanti Hamilton said it’s critical to get the lead program back on track as soon as possible. Long term, an external audit will probe more deeply into the working of the health department.

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