Lead testing fallout: Emails show Mayor Barrett’s office alerted to Health Dept. problems earlier

MILWAUKEE -- Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett's office knew of problems in the city's lead poisoning prevention program in December, more than two weeks before he publicly acknowledged an issue, according to emails obtained by FOX6 News.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett -- Jan. 12

Barrett on Jan. 12 announced the City of Milwaukee Health Department had not been tracking whether it had properly notified 8,000 families with children who had tested high for blood-lead levels since 2015. Barrett says records show some were notified but it's unclear whether all of the letters for impacted families were logged as being sent. Health Commissioner Bevan Baker resigned.

"What I would consider, at a minimum, sloppy bookkeeping," Barrett said.

During a news conference that afternoon, Barrett said he had only learned of the notification error earlier that week. But email records show separate concerns were being raised about the Health Department's culture and performance at least two weeks earlier.

Benjamin James, a former employee in the Health Department, emailed Barrett, all 15 aldermen, and staffers within the Department of Employee Relations with his concerns on Dec. 28. In a 22-page attachment, he raised several issues, including:

  • Staffing and resource problems that he said Health Department administrators had been made aware of for 18 months
  • A culture of bullying and intimidation by department leaders
  • Mismanagement in the city's lead abatement program that led to a lack of in-home testing

James did not specifically mention the notification issue that Barrett would later tell the public about.

Baker responded to the email with one of his own on Dec. 28, telling aldermen to "please know that I have taken immediate action regarding the issues referenced in the correspondence." Baker said he was willing to meet with aldermen about the concerns.

It's not clear if anyone from Barrett's office responded to James or addressed the concerns the former employee raised. His office has not fulfilled a request from FOX6 News for any such records.

Barrett on Wednesday during a four-hour meeting with aldermen defended his decision not to raise James' concerns publicly because the issues were already being addressed internally.

"If I find out about something I believe the public should know, I share it with the public," Barrett said. "I was first informed of these numbers (last) Monday."

Council President Ashanti Hamilton said for years he'd heard rumors of discord within the Health Department, but didn't think it was directly affecting service to the public until now.

"It’s something that is extremely disappointing," Hamilton told reporters.

When asked whether other people will be losing their jobs as a result of this, Hamilton said "what we can say is there are continuing investigations on a number of employees within the department."

Hamilton said the error has been narrowed down to a specific division within the Health Department and he hopes the city takes a closer look at the possibility lead water pipes are a contributing factor to these issues -- not just lead paint in homes. Doctors say regardless, all kids should be tested three times before the age of three.

"Lead testing is a routine part of pediatric preventive care. Typically pediatricians will recommend lead testing at age one and then again at age two and for residents of the city of Milwaukee and Racine," Dr. Heather Paradis with Children's Hospital of Wisconsin said.

The emails and James' attachment surfaced on the same day that the Common Council unanimously approved an investigation into the city's lead abatement program. Alderman Tony Zielinski, who is running for mayor in 2020, plans to introduce additional legislation calling for an audit of the entire Health Department.

Alderman Tony Zielinski

"We’ve been battling the Health Department and the mayor’s office as far as seeing that something is done with regard to lead transparency and this issue," Zielinski said.

Barrett was grilled for four hours at a meeting of the council's Steering and Rules Committee on Wednesday afternoon. He revealed that he "didn't have a good feeling" about Health Department operations around Christmas and began to get involved. He would not say during open session if any other Health Department employees besides Baker had resigned or had been questioned, though he said "investigations are currently underway." He said he would address council members' personnel questions in closed session.

Mayor Barrett answers questions from aldermen amid lead testing fallout

Barrett told aldermen that he didn't see any criminal misconduct within the Health Department. He said it was his goal to have letters ready to send out to the 8,000 potentially affected families by the end of this week.