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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Common Council Unanimously Approves New Milwaukee Health Commissioner

Screenshot/City of Milwaukee
Jeanette Kowalik speaks during Tuesday's Public Safety and Health Committee meeting.

Jeanette Kowalik was voted in as the City of Milwaukee's public health commissioner Wednesday. There were no votes of opposition.

In January, news broke that its once–touted childhood lead contamination prevention program was grossly mismanaged. A heartbeat later, health commissioner Bevan Baker resigned.

Based on the candidate’s reception at a special meeting of the Public Safety and Health Committee Tuesday, Kowalik’s prospects appeared bright.

Kowalik told aldermen she feels she was called home to take on the role.

Credit Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs
Jeaneatte Kowalik is Milwaukee's new health commissioner.

“I was born and raised in Milwaukee. I overcame poverty and challenges associated with being a woman of color in this city. I was a single parent that used health department resources such as WIC, the state’s welfare works program and Section 8 housing,” Kowalik added, “Education and progressive employment enabled me to achieve my life purpose to serve as Milwaukee’s commissioner of health …"

Kowalik earned a PhD in health sciences from UWM. She’s currently an associate director for the Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs in Washington D.C.

During Tuesday’s committee meeting, Kowalik fired off strategies to tackle everything from childhood lead poisoning to employee morale within the health department.

“So, my strategic priorities are one, governance and accountability, public health workforce development and restoring confidence in programs and services," Kowalik said.

And she wants to create a board of health, “Comprised of community and clinical representatives. I envision all board of health members will be required to not only complete health equity training but dismantling racism will be integrated into the board’s approach for overseeing the health department to ensure services and opportunism are equitable, thus reducing health disparities,” Kowalik said.

There’s ever-growing concern that discrimination has figured into dysfunction within the health department and into its delivery of services to the community.

Alderwoman Chantia Lewis served on the health commissioner selection committee and applauds Kowalik for speaking openly about the issue.

“To not be afraid to tackle the racism thing, to say we need to deal with equity and trauma and having those things being highlighted as systemic thing as an issue that we have to tackle in order to deal with the symptoms. Let’s get down to the root of the cause,” Lewis said.

Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton says he doesn’t doubt Kowalik’s qualifications but says putting the health department back on the right track will take a coordinated team effort.

“Because I’m telling you now, that with this council that there is an unwillingness to go back to an era of not understanding and not having transparency and not being able to see what needs to happen and how to bring a team atmosphere to what we’re trying to accomplish,” Hamilton said.

Kowalik didn’t falter. She pledged to be both accountable and transparent.

“I have to have the ability to be able to provide the facts, provide them on a timely basis, to eliminate or reduce any red tape so that the community also is not guessing what is happening in the department. There’s no way that the first time you learn something in your health department is through the Journal Sentinel,” Kowalik added, “That’s unacceptable.”

Committee Chair Bob Donovan asked for additional assurances including to working Patricia McManus who stepped in as interim health commissioner last February.

“That you intend to work with commissioner McManus for that transition. And that you’ll come back to this committee in a timely manner with an action plan as to precisely how we turn this ship around and get it heading in the right direction,” Donovan said.

Kowalik says she’s already drafted one and will present a more polished version within 30 days of her appointment.

She seemed to anticipate what Donovan said next.

“I should point out that tomorrow I will be introducing legislation creating the position of inspector general for the Milwaukee health department,” Donovan said.

Kowalik responded, “I’m very thrilled to hear that.”

Tuesday’s safety and health committee meeting was probably the most light-hearted discussion around Milwaukee health department issues in months.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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