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With Milwaukee's Health Department Under Scrutiny, Common Council Seeks Solutions

Left to right: Health Department Head of Nursing Tiffany Barta, the city's Employee Relations Director Maria Monteagudo and Interim Health Commissioner Dr. Patricia McManus testified at Thursday's Steering & Rules Committee meeting.

Milwaukee’s health department is being scrutinized by federal, state and local agencies. They’re looking into multiple problems at the department, including figuring out how the agency allowed so many children to slip through the cracks – kids who needed follow up for possible lead contamination.

In the meantime, aldermen are trying to get their arms around the problems – and look for solutions.

On Thursday, the health department and its lead poisoning prevention program came up at two Common Council meetings.

Members of the Steering & Rules Committee were briefed by the city's Legislative Reference Bureau, which has been trying to get to the bottom of the health departments operational fiasco.

Credit Susan Bence
Aaron Cadle with the city's Legislative Reference Bureau reported his findings on what went wrong with Milwaukee's childhood lead poisoning prevention program at Thursday's Steering & Rules committee.

Aaron Cadle, a fiscal analyst, scrutinized the lead program, but said it was almost impossible to come up with concrete information.

“We found there was a lack of reliable data for analysis. That’s primarily because of the Stellar system that they use – the state-mandated database that we maintain for the state. It was very difficult to get, well, I really couldn’t get any data,” he said.

Cadle was limited in what he could share with the committee due to the ongoing personnel investigations of the health department staff.

This frustrated Alderman Mark Borkowski, who has been vocal about asking when the personnel matters would be handled.

“I was told a couple of weeks. That would be May, toward the end of May. So, we’re two months past. Why is this dragging? I mean, I think Watergate was quicker,” Borkowski said.

"Why is this dragging? I mean, I think Watergate was quicker."

Employee Relations Director Maria Monteagudo addressed those questioning the investigations into the department staff.

“This is probably the most complex, intricate investigation that we’ve ever done,” Monteagudo said. “So for anybody to question the process without knowing what’s going on in terms of the investigation, I find offensive.”

Patricia McManus, interim health commissioner, said she’s implementing new program protocols while the department team scrambles to track down about 390 children who tested high for lead between 2012-2017.

“We’ve got to know what’s happening and what happened with these kids all this time,” McManus said. “We’re also looking back to see if there’s a report that they’ve had a test since that time.”

There also were some signs of movement toward improving lead poisoning prevention efforts.

The aldermen introduced a proposal in the Public Safety and Health Committee that would initiate a new door-to-door outreach effort, focusing on areas of the city with the heaviest concentration of reported lead-poisoned children – the 12th and 15th districts.

The program would rely on community partners, including the Social Development Commission and Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers. They would pass out detailed information about the threat posed by lead and distribute free water filters.

Also, Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton said he’s trying to compel Bevan Baker, former health commissioner who suddenly stepped down when problems with the lead poisoning prevention program came to light, to share information. Hamilton hopes this will happen without having to issue a subpoena.

Last week the advocacy group Freshwater For Life Action Coalition called for the Common Council to subpoena five individuals in order to paint a more full picture of problems and culpability within the city. Baker was on the list, but it is unclear if that influenced Hamilton in any way.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.
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