Common Council President weighs in on failures within Milwaukee Health Department, lead program

NOW: Common Council President weighs in on failures within Milwaukee Health Department, lead program

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- The resignation of health commissioner Bevan Baker in January was the beginning of uncovering the massive failures within the Milwaukee Health Department and lead poisoning prevention program.

For eleven months the department and several employees have been under investigation. So when will things be back on track? And how are elected officials making sure lead poisoned kids are getting proper care now? CBS 58 Investigates sat down with Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton to get some answers.

“He was the commissioner over the health department,” Hamilton said about Baker’s role in the problems. “There was a ball he dropped. Was it intentional? Was it criminal? Let the investigations determine that.”

Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton says whether or not Baker’s conduct as health commissioner warrants charges, will be decided by the District attorney’s ongoing criminal investigation.

In the meantime, plans to have Baker publicly testify at a council hearing are on hold.

“Why not call him, even if he’s going to plead the 5th, just so you can ask those questions in a public forum to show that you guys are asking those questions?” CBS 58 Investigates reporter Kristen Barbaresi asked.

“Because that’s a show, right?” Hamilton said. “We want to have action.”

It’s not just the former health commissioner being blamed for the failures in the lead poisoning prevention program. Multiple personnel investigations over the last eleven months led to health department employees being suspended, forced to resign, even fired.  And Hamilton says it’s not over.

“So we could still see more discipline, perhaps more terminations?” Barbaresi asked.

“Yep, I don’t think we’re done with the personnel issues within the health department, as far as investigations are concerned,” Hamilton said.

Meanwhile the city is also trying to repair the damage that’s been done. First, by tracking down lead poisoned kids who may not have received proper care.

“There’s been some challenges with being able to go forward with making contact with the people that actually lived there at that time, and we’re expending every resource we have to make sure every effort is made, that every child is contacted and that they’re getting the service they need to address their exposure,” Hamilton said.

The city is also under a “stop work” order from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, halting the removal of lead paint from homes. In part, because grant money was misused and homes of sick kids weren’t being abated because the health department didn’t want to reward landlords who poisoned children.

“It blew our mind because you’re not doing this to help the landlord,” Hamilton said. “You’re doing this to help the child that’s living in the house. So why would you have a policy, internally, that would continue to put kids at risk because you don’t want to help a landlord?”

And all the while the number of lead poisoned kids in Milwaukee continues to grow. As of October 15, 3,143 kids tested positive for lead poisoning this year. According to city data, the last time numbers were this high was back in 2013, when 3566 kids tested positive for elevated lead levels.

“Do you know that those kids got proper follow up care, with everything going on in the health department?” Barbaresi asked.

“We haven’t gotten another communication about the activity for those kids yet,” Hamilton said. “So what we want to be able to do at the next Steering and Rules meeting, is talk about that activity. And what the plan is moving forward.”

“Do you think more kids were poisoned this year or were the records just poorly kept for the last couple of years? Or do we not know?” Barbaresi asked.

“So we don’t know,” Hamilton said. “What we do know is that there were inaccurate records and that a lot of this documentation was not being kept.”

Hamilton says going forward, the council will be more diligent about overseeing the department. Aldermen recently voted to hire an inspector general who will monitor city department and report directly to the council.

“We didn’t get to this point overnight,” Hamilton said. “The Council takes this oversight very seriously and we are hoping that the administration embraces this partnership of trying to create a sense of comfort and stability and that we are moving in the right direction and demanding a new level of transparency.”

The district attorney’s office won’t comment on when the criminal investigation will be complete and Hamilton says he has not been give a timeline.

Hamilton says the new Health Commissioner will be publicly presenting a 90 day plan to get the lead program back on track at the Steering and Rules Committee Meeting next Friday

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