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Milwaukee health commissioner appointee pledges to end ‘the days of operating in the dark’

Patricia McManus

MILWAUKEE -- Milwaukee's top health official had one last parting shot for Mayor Tom Barrett on Tuesday, accusing him of trying to stop her from making changes at the city's scandal-plagued Health Department.

"He said he didn’t want anything to change, that he didn’t want me to do anything," interim Health Commissioner Patricia McManus told a Common Council committee. "He didn’t want anything to change. I said to him, 'I’m not a placeholder.'"

McManus replaced former commissioner Bevan Baker, who resigned under pressure in January after it was revealed his agency had failed to keep children safe from lead poisoning.

Bevan Baker

Barrett recalled the conversation with McManus differently.

"Any characterization that the mayor did not want Health Department issues addressed as quickly as possible reflects either a misunderstanding or an intentional misrepresentation of what the mayor said," said Jeff Fleming, a Barrett spokesman.

The woman who's likely to become Milwaukee's next full-time health commissioner promised Tuesday to end "the days of operating in the dark" at the troubled agency.

Jeanette Kowalik

Jeanette Kowalik won the unanimous vote in the Public Safety and Health committee. The full council is scheduled to vote on her confirmation Wednesday morning.

"When public health is doing its job of protecting the public, it’s not in the news," Kowalik told aldermen. "We should be in the news for our accomplishments and not deficiencies, and I seek to change that."

Kowalik, a Milwaukee native, works in public health in Washington, D.C. She told aldermen that as a single mother, she had relied on the Milwaukee Health Department's services.

Kowalik is poised to take over a department where the problems continue to deepen.

City of Milwaukee Health Department

Tuesday, McManus hinted at the possibility of future lawsuits against her agency from families with lead-poisoned children. She sought to explain why the city has been able to make so few homes lead-safe. Addressing a separate problem, she said the department had been set up in a way that "bordered almost on sabotage."

Aldermen said they felt misled about the department's lead abatement efforts on a backlog of 112 homes identified at the start of the year where lead-poisoned children live.

The city has been able to make only 11 of them lead safe this year because of staffing shortages and other factors, McManus revealed.

"It was a whole broken system. We had no system in place to do what we were supposed to do," she told aldermen.

"I’m just speaking for myself. I feel a little misled. I do. I feel a little misled," Alderman Mark Borkowski responded.

Mark Borkowski

McManus told aldermen that the agency's nursing staff did not report directly to the Health Department's director of nursing but instead to other bureaucrats. Alderwoman Chantia Lewis said that setup "doesn't make sense to me."

"Well, me either," said McManus, who told aldermen she was making changes to the management structure.

McManus said lawyers for poisoned children had started making records requests of the Health Department, meaning lawsuits over the lead crisis are possible.

She also questioned whether Kowalik would be beholden to Barrett, a notion that Kowalik refuted.

"This is about public health. This is about facts. This is about science," Kowalik told reporters. "So that’s the position that I’m taking on the leadership of the department."

Chantia Lewis

Council members praised her experience before voting to approve her.

"I think we have found the one!" said Alderwoman Chantia Lewis, who sat on a search committee that recommended Kowalik.