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‘I’m good at what I do:’ Common Council appoints interim health commissioner

Dr. Patricia McManus

MILWAUKEE -- The Milwaukee Common Council on Tuesday, Feb. 6 approved a new interim health commissioner in response to the Milwaukee Health Department's failure to track whether it was notifying the families of children who tested positive for lead poisoning.

Patricia McManus said she believes the problem is worse than a bookkeeping mistake.

"I'm good at what I do. I've done it a long time," McManus said, as she took questions from the council for more than an hour.

Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton nominated McManus to serve as the city's interim health commissioner nearly a month after the abrupt resignation of Bevan Baker. He left as it became public the health department had, for the last three years, failed to track whether families of kids who tested positive for elevated levels of lead were notified.

"To have one year when you have 500 or something letters that don't go out, maybe that could happen. Three years? I'm gonna be very honest -- I think that was deliberate," McManus said.

Letter sent to parents on lead concerns

Paul Nannis

McManus' nomination came after the Common Council's Public Safety and Health Committee rejected Mayor Tom Barrett's pick for the job: Paul Nannis, who had previously served as health commissioner. Barrett withdrew Nannis' nomination on Monday.

"I would ask that we seriously consider maybe having a special Public Safety Committee meeting and then having a special Common Council meeting, OK? To do this properly," Alderman Mark Borkowski said.

As some aldermen questioned whether the appointment of McManus, who leads the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin, was happening too fast, others said there's no time to waste.

Ashanti Hamilton

"I thought it was imperative upon us to move at the speed of justice and not necessarily the regular process," Hamilton said.

McManus pledged to look at the entire Milwaukee Health Department, starting with the lead issue, while vowing not to take sides at City Hall.

"I'm not taking a loyalty oath to Tom (Barrett) or to the council, right? It's to the community. That's how I see myself and I think that's the problem sometimes when you're in politics," McManus said.

The Common Council also voted to move forward with an outside audit of the entire health department. Some aldermen suggested it would be be much more cost effective to have the city comptroller's office do the audit from within. However, the council voted to put out an RFP for bids from outside firms and see the possible costs before deciding how to proceed.

McManus said she's open to an outside audit, as well as a federal investigation, which is what Congresswoman Gwen Moore (D - Milwaukee) has requested. McManus added she wants workers to feel comfortable sharing concerns with elected officials, something they'd been prohibited from doing under a now-rescinded policy.

Mayor Barrett's office released this statement in response to the Common Council's appointment:

“Before he signs the file, he will be meeting with  Dr. McManus.”