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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Former Milwaukee Health Commissioner Bevan Baker Agrees To Appear At Public Hearing

Susan Bence
Chairman Ashanti Hamilton said it was important that council members be briefed by the city attorney at Thursday's Steering & Rules Committee meeting.

Update 3:15 P.M.

Bevan Baker did not appear before the Steering & Rules Committee meeting Thursday, but committee chair Ashanti Hamilton said the former health commissioner will participate in a public hearing. Hamilton didn't announce the hearing date. He said council members needed to be briefed by the city attorney.

"It is important for the council to understand what the impact of many of the discussions that have been circling around the text messages that came out and also the personnel investigation reports that have been completed ... There are some things that could have legal ramifications," Hamilton said.

He said some text messages between Bevan Baker and Health Department Director of Nursing Tiffany Barta have been released by the city, as well as a portion of the health department personnel investigation.

With that, the committee went into closed session.

Original story Thursday morning, Sept. 13, 2018

The Milwaukee Health Department doesn’t seem to be able to rid itself of debate. Thursday could mark another twist in the story, as a Common Council committee is slated to discuss the department’s former leadership this afternoon.

Credit Susan Bence
Now former health commissioner Bevan Baker (at microphone) in November 2016 when he announced free water filters would be distributed to Milwaukee residents.

The Steering & Rules Committee has been hashing and rehashing health department mismanagement since January. That’s when huge gaps in the health department’s childhood lead poisoning prevention program came to light. Almost immediately, health commissioner Bevan Baker resigned without a word to the public.

Earlier this month, the city appeared to take a step forward when the Common Council approved a new health commissioner, Jeanette Kowalik.

But her appointment hasn’t put an end to drama around the department’s poor performance that put chilldren’s health at risk.

While the details of Thursday’s meeting aren’t known, a few aldermen have expressed wanting to hear from Baker. And early this week, rumors surfaced that the former health commissioner had been subpoenaed to testify before the committee.

WUWM reached out to several Common Council members but was unable to confirm the rumor.

Alderwoman Milele Coggs said she hadn't heard that Baker would attend the meeting — either on his own or because of a subpoena.

Credit Susan Bence
Health department head of nursing Tiffany Barta (far left) at July 19, 2018 Steering & Rules Committee meeting, along with city's Employee Relations Director Maria Monteagudo and Interim Health Commissioner Patricia McManus.

In the meantime, new information about the childhood lead program saga has surfaced that aldermen likely will want to discuss: text messages exchanged between former commissioner Baker and Tiffany Barta — the health department's director of nursing.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel acquired the messages that were sent months before Baker resigned. According to the newspaper, Barta used the texts to warn Baker that the problems in the lead program could put him at risk.

Barta appeared to try to put measures in place to protect Baker. For instance, in one message she told the health commissioner that, "I'm only doing this for you because if this gets out, that the lead program is this messed up! We will be held to the grindstone!"

She's still employed by the health department and has addressed aldermen about the problems in the lead poisoning prevention program in the past.

In July, she appeared before both the Public Safety & Health Committee and the Steering & Rules Committee. In her comments, Barta said nothing about warning or trying to protect Baker from the fallout related to mismanagement in the department.

But she did acknowledge that grave mistakes were made in administering the lead program and that every facet was under review.

“The key thing that I will say is that some of the fundamental policies and procedures that need to be in place to assure continuity of service, to assure that some of the problems that were recognized in the past will not happen again, putting those accountability measures, so really looking at assuring that we have a very comprehensive program with accountability measures to assure that it doesn’t happen again,” Barta said in a July meeting.

There’s a strong possibility that Thursday’s Common Council meeting will go into closed session.

Meanwhile, there is a related item coming up in another committee this morning: Alderman Bob Donovan is introducing a resolution that would create an inspector general position to oversee the health department.

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