MILWAUKEE -- Members of Milwaukee Common Council's Steering and Rules Committee and Milwaukee Health Department leaders on Wednesday, Jan. 31 poured over a 51-page report released late Monday into the city's mismanagement of the Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. Former Health Commissioner Bevan Baker resigned amid the scandal. Health department leaders told the Common Council committee Wednesday there is a department policy that prevents them from going to the Council or mayor with concerns.
FOX6 News has learned then-Commissioner Bevan Baker signed off on the policy on Oct. 27, 2017, and it took effect three days later. It was scheduled to be in effect for three years before a review, according to the last page of the policy.
The policy mandated that Milwaukee Health Department employees seek authorization from the health commissioner or health operations manager before contacting elected officials -- including the mayor's office, Common Council, Milwaukee county executive, and Milwaukee County supervisors. A handful of employees were given pre-authorization because of their job duties.
"The purpose of this policy is to ensure that the department's policies, mission and goals are appropriately represented and communicated to the mayor's office and Common Council," the policy states. "By following this policy and procedure, staff members will ensure that MHD's policy issues are properly vetted and communicated."
Mayor Tom Barrett's office told FOX6 that Barrett would be checking with other department heads to ensure their agencies don't have similar policies. Barrett's expectation is that no city departments have such policies prohibiting contact with Common Council members, said Jodie Tabak, a spokeswoman for the mayor.
"Nobody is well served by playing hide the ball or any of these other things and that's certainly not something we'd support," Aaron Szopinski with the mayor's office said.
Health department employees were also barred from responding to requests from elected officials without contacting one of four top officials in the department.
"Employees should not respond to elected official's requests without prior approval or authorization," the policy states.
Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton said the policy may have inadvertently hurt children in Milwaukee.
"The lack of the ability to be able to move past your immediate supervisor to talk about a problem hindered us from being able to respond to this in a quicker way," Hamilton said.
Hamilton noted that he was receiving text messages that employees from across city departments had similar experiences of not taking matters directly to the Common Council or mayor. Other city officials said this problem goes much deeper than the health department.
As it relates to Wednesday's Steering and Rules Committee meeting, all were in agreement that the city failed to protect the city's most vulnerable populations from lead exposure, and now, they're trying to work together to figure out how this happened, and make sure it never happens again.
Health department officials before the committee on Wednesday went over the 51-page report.
"We are being transparent. It's too late. The evidence is glaring," Sandra Rotar, health department said. "I have absolutely no idea that we were not serving children in the capacity, and children in the way that we should have -- until it was discovered."
The report shows there is now record that thousands of children exposed to lead ever received necessary outreach services between 2015 and 2017, including instances where children with extreme blood lead levels may have been allowed to return home before lead sources, often found in paint, were removed.
"My question is this: As serious this problem is, ladies, why didn't you come forward beforehand?" Alderman Bob Donovan said.
"I had absolutely no idea how systemic the problem was," Rotar said.
Rotar said once she became aware of the mismanagement, she informed Mayor Barrett in early January. On Jan. 12, Barrett held a news conference to alert the public.
He held another news conference Monday evening to release the report.
"A news conference at 7 p.m. on a Monday? You can talk about 'there's no cover-up,' but the actions say otherwise," Alderman Mark Borkowski said.
Barrett said the health department was working to correct the errors, sending out 6,400 letters to affected families and opening three walk-in clinics for free lead testing, along with a hotline for parents with questions.
Common Council members are now calling for an external investigation, saying the current administration cannot be trusted.
"We need to know about the problems so that people can get the services that they need," Alderwoman Milele Coggs said.
Despite requests from Common Council members that the mayor attend Wednesday's Steering and Rules Committee meeting, he was in California to accept a grant.
Mayor Barrett's office issued this statement Wednesday:
"The mayor is pleased with the work the health department staff did on the report. It set the table for a difficult but necessary conversation. As the mayor mentioned Monday night, this is a call for all hands on deck including Common Council members, community partners, healthcare providers, and city staff."
Statement from Alderman Russell Stamper II Wednesday:
"If we are going to find out the truth about Milwaukee’s lead crisis, we need answers. The Council needs answers and more importantly, the public needs answers.
Although the Health Department report that was released Monday on the initial investigation was lengthy, it only leaves you with more questions to be answered. Representing and as a resident of the hardest hit area in the city in terms of high lead levels in children, I'm shocked that this level of complacency has taken place with the futures of my children and my neighbors’ children as well. As public officials we are charged first and foremost with protecting the safety of the public, and this just simply has not happened in this instance to say the very least.
As a result we no longer feel confident to allow a Health Department and a mayoral administration that has failed to protect the public safety so miserably to investigate themselves.
To this end we are putting forth a Council resolution to call for an RFP to do a proper follow-up investigation into all areas highlighted in the MHD report. This will be completed and effective immediately.
The ball has been dropped and the public has the right to have it picked up by an outside investigator. Whether that is a special counsel or federal agency, it must be done in order to rebuild the public trust in our Health Department and those who oversee it. As the inconsistencies, the incompetence, and the lack of transparency mounts, questions that have been raised won't be answered by those who have already let us down."
Statement from Alderman Khalif Rainey Wednesday:
"As Mayor Barrett tries to control the public relations damage from the Health Department notification debacle involving families whose children tested positive for elevated lead levels in their blood, there are some critical details that he is not sharing with members of the Common Council.
Specifically, he has not provided me with information about how many 7th District residents are affected by the notification errors, and where in the district they live. This is critically important information that I would like to have as soon as possible. If I know where these affected constituents are in my district, then I can help them and be a positive change agent on their behalf.
By not knowing I feel I am being shut out and kept in the dark. It’s an unfortunate crisis that they (families) didn’t ask for, and that the Mayor claims he knew nothing about until reports started hitting the news media.
I want to know if these families live in the same neighborhoods that the U.S. Postal Service wanted to abandon recently, or if they reside in the same neighborhoods and ZIP codes hardest hit by poverty, joblessness and other reasons for lost hope.
I deserve to know as soon as possible where in my district the affected constituents are, and my constituents deserve many more answers from the Mayor about this troubling episode that occurred under his watch."
Statement from Alderman Jose Perez Tuesday:
"Mayor Tom Barrett and his administration can no longer be trusted to lead the investigation into the broken lead abatement programs within the Milwaukee Health Department. Unfortunately, we have a real problem and my district bears a huge burden because of poverty, density, and the age of the housing stock. The administration has been asleep at the switch and we had every right to expect better for our children and their families.
The recently-released initial report from the Health Department provided Monday evening only made clearer how detached and unaware the Mayor and his immediate circle were to the mismanagement of the department. The Mayor, by his actions and inactions, has lost the moral authority to lead on this matter. The Council is done with offering deference to the Mayor. He has failed and we are going to fully engage and take responsibility where the administration has failed.
All options – including fundamental restructuring of the Milwaukee Health Department – were on the table as the Council moves forward. No structure, no process, and no person should consider themselves exempt from scrutiny in the case of a failure this fundamental. The investigation is only beginning."