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Mayor Barrett rescinds MHD policy preventing employees from coming forward with lead concerns

MILWAUKEE -- Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett on Thursday, Feb. 1 rescinded a policy at the Milwaukee Health Department that prohibited employees from communicating with elected officials -- a day after Common Council members learned such policy existed.

The mayor's move came after Alderman Tony Zielinski Thursday said in a statement he plans to introduce a resolution to prohibit departments from enacting policies restricting employees from communicating with elected city officials, to prohibit any policy which aims to stifle whistle-blowers.

It was learned on Wednesday, Jan. 31 the policy prevented MHD leaders from going to the Common Council and mayor with lead concerns.

Sandra Rotar -- MHD

During a special meeting of the Milwaukee Common Council's Steering and Rules Committee, employees from the Milwaukee Health Department briefed Common Council members on lead laterals and risks to city drinking water, as well as other sources of lead contaminants that are impacting vulnerable populations such as women in reproductive years and children.

The MHD representatives were grilled by alderman about why they didn't come forward about serious mismanagement in the city's Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. They admitted they weren't allowed to come forward because of the internal policy requiring that they only share policy or program concerns with their direct supervisor.

The seven-page policy was implemented in October 2017 by then-Commissioner Bevan Baker, who resigned amid this lead scandal -- after it was revealed MHD failed to keep track of whether children with elevated blood lead levels ever received necessary follow-up services between 2015 and 2017.

The policy states its purpose is to "ensure that the department's policies, mission and goals are appropriately represented."

Alderman Tony Zielinski

"That type of environment created or enabled this type of problem that's cropping up in the health department with respect to lead and how many other issues from occurring," Zielinski said.

During the meeting, Alderman Zielinski said in a statement he was was appalled to learn about the written policy restricting workers from speaking directly to elected officials. Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton said the policy came at the expense of children's lives.

“The policy is a disgrace, and it likely restricted workers from coming forward sooner. Had city employees been able to come forward sooner, greater steps toward prevention could have been taken and perhaps fewer children would have been negatively impacted. My resolution will prohibit all departments from being able to enact a troubling policy like this. It's very dangerous. It's not good from a public policy standpoint to have this culture of concealment," Zielinski said.

MPD Chief Ed Flynn

Officials with the City of Milwaukee's Department of Public Works and Milwaukee Police Department told FOX6 News no such policies exist for them.

"On constituent services issues, we have many points of contact," Chief Ed Flynn said.

The mayor's office said the communication restrictions at MHD have been suspended.

According to Zielinski, many colleagues expressed interest in joining as co-sponsors of his resolution, including Alderwoman Milele Coggs, Alderman Jim Bohl, Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton, Alderman Russell Stamper, II, Alderman Mark Borkowski and Alderman Cavalier Johnson, with other members expected to join in.

This issue will be further examined during the full Common Council meeting at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 6 at City Hall, Zielinski said.

Alderman Zielinski said he's hopeful it'll be approved and then immediately signed by Mayor Barrett. The mayor was in California Wednesday accepting a grant and wasn't present at the committee meeting.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett

Barrett's office issued this statement on the Milwaukee Health Department policy:

“The mayor’s expectation is that no department should have this policy.”

According to Zielinski, if this resolution is adopted, the Milwaukee Health Department would be required to rescind its communication policy and replace it with one that allows employees the opportunity to be able to speak with elected city officials.

Milwaukee Alderman Bob Donovan

Meanwhile, alderman Bob Donovan issued this statement Thursday afternoon after the mayor rescinded the policy:

"I can’t believe it took him an entire day, but Mayor Barrett has rescinded the Health Department policy restricting employees from communicating with elected officials.

I want to know if this now extends to all city departments (including the Police Department) and whether the mayor will now guarantee that there will be no repercussions for those who share information and communicate with elected officials.

By the way, in an effort to ensure that this MHD policy (and any other similar policies in other city departments) is rescinded, there is Common Council legislation coming – sponsored by Alderman Zielinski and supported by myself and several Council members – prohibiting any policy that might stifle or suppress whistle-blowing.

I want to say that it’s disturbing that a policy like the MHD communication policy existed in the first place and especially today when public confidence in government has been shaken to the core too many times.

I am pleased that Mayor Barrett rescinded the policy, because whether in writing or not it is a culture that has existed for years in city government. Fear of coming forward to divulge or discuss serious issues has kept too many great city workers silent, out of fear of retaliation.

The culture needs to end and I am asking Mayor Barrett to show leadership on this issue by ensuring that a “no gag order” directive be extended to ALL city departments."