MILWAUKEE -- Members of the Common Council's Public Safety and Health Committee on Thursday, Jan. 25 voted against confirming Paul Nannis as interim director of the Milwaukee Health Department.
Nannis had previously served as the health commissioner and is offering to steer the troubled agency until a permanent commissioner is appointed.
The vote was 1-1-3; Alderman Terry Witkowski voted yes while Aldermen Mark Borkowski, Bob Donovan, and Jose Perez voted no. Alderwoman Chantia Lewis abstained. The full Common Council could still approve Nannis, but it would be without the blessing of this committee.
As interim health director for 120 days, Nannis' job would be to stabilize a Health Department reeling from the revelation thousands of families with children who tested positive for elevated levels of lead may not have been notified.
"Paul, I've known you for years, but I'm not going to support your confirmation," Donovan said. "You're one of the good ole boys and I think this department and this city would benefit immensely from a different direction and some fresh eyes."
Nannis mentioned his credentials, stating he first served a Common Council health committee in 1988 and, before that, had worked for community health groups. Nannis said he had no interested in getting the job permanently, saying Thursday he wants to stabilize the department and leave after 120 days.
"I think the first thing we would need to do is attend to the issue before us, which is what happened with lead? Why it broke? Where did it break? Who's responsible?" Nannis said.
"You know what? The mayor had his chance and he dropped the ball," Alderman Borkowski said.
Mayor Barrett's office issued this statement in response to the committee's vote:
‘It’s very civic-minded of Mr. Nannis to step up for this 120-day appointment and lend his expertise in a time when the department is in need of leadership. It’s a mistake to force the department to be drifting when we should all be united in doing what is best for the citizens of this community.”
Despite the vote, Nannis and the Health Department are still supposed to deliver a report Monday to the Common Council and Mayor Barrett's office. Nannis said the report will update the status as to where the department is in regards to finding out what went wrong.
"My agenda is simply ‘fix it, manage it, steer it forward and move on’ and you need someone to manage," Nannis said, "Lead isn’t the only program in the health department. We immunize your kids, we visit your parents."
Former Milwaukee Health Commissioner Bevan Baker resigned after it was learned the Health Department could not say for sure which families were told their children tested positive for elevated lead levels. The health provider doing the testing sent a notification -- but the city is supposed to follow up. Due to what Barrett called a "bookkeeping" issue, health officials said there are cases where they don't know if that follow-up happened.
The city has since mailed letters to more than 6,400 families, alerting parents their child needs additional testing or services based on initial lead testing results.
Additionally, three clinics are offering lead testing:
- Keenan Health Center: 3200 N. 36th St.
- Northwest Health Center: 7630 W. Mill Rd.
- Southside Health Center: 1639 S. 23rd St.
The City of Milwaukee has also set up a phone number, 414-286-8800, available for those with questions about lead.