Mayor Barrett answers questions regarding Health Department lead testing

NOW: Mayor Barrett answers questions regarding Health Department lead testing

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Several city council members say we're nowhere near out of the woods when it comes to possible ramifications of the problems at the health department.

They want to hold the Mayor and other public officials accountable for the health department's failure to properly notify families about lead poisoning in children.

"We were hoping they'd come back and say these 500 letters were sent. That did not happen," said Mayor Tom Barrett.

At a special meeting of the Steering and Rules Committee on Wednesday, the mayor recounted what he says he knew about the problems with the health department and when he knew it.

"We know at a minimum there is sloppy bookkeeping that letters did not document, that letters were set out and I'm hoping that's what it is. I cannot sit before you and say they were sent out," Mayor Barrett said.

The Mayor said he had a feeling something was wrong around Christmastime. CBS 58 News first reported Friday that Mayor Barrett had received a letter at the end of December from a former health department employee with concerns about how the lead abatement program operates.

On Wednesday, the Mayor said he learned last week that parents of children with elevated lead levels may not have been properly notified. That's when Health Commissioner Bevan Baker resigned.

Earlier, The Common Council voted unanimously for an investigation into Milwaukee's Health Department.

"The sooner we found out what's going on out there that we don't know about, the better position we are in to help address that," Tony Zielinski.

"Are the facts that we've been given over the last 15 years dealing with lead in the water, are they accurate," said Mark Borkowski.

Now council members say they want to hold people accountable for the failure to protect public safety. 

"What I've seen for the first time since I've been there is that the Council is actually upset and we're gonna hold people's feet to the fire."

City officials and alderpersons stopped the Steering and Rules Committee meeting to hold a closed session. Council President Ashanti Hamilton says they discussed who is responsible for what the mayor calls "sloppy bookkeeping." Hamilton says they don't know exactly who is to blame for the possibility that 500 families were not mailed letters to inform them about their child's elevated lead level. He says they have narrowed down the division of the health department responsible for the task.

"What we can say is there are continuing investigations on a number of employees in the department," said Hamilton.

Mayor Barrett also addressed the email that former Milwaukee Health Department employee, Benjamin James, sent to his office, the health department and the common council. The email sent at the end of December brought forth concerns with how the lead program operates and specifically that the city isn't testing water for lead in homes where kids have high lead levels.

Mayor Barrett says he was addressing the issue, but didn't feel the need to let the public know. He says he did feel he needed to bring the notification error to light.

"That's when we decided we really had to move forward and wanted to let the public know. One of the things that I think people should realize is that I was first informed of these numbers on Monday. I instructed my staff and the health department staff to scrub these numbers, make sure you get me as much information as you can. By Friday, I brought every bit of information that I know to the public," said Barrett.

In the Steering and Rules Committee Meeting, multiple alderpersons brought up water testing. The health department says starting January 2nd, they gave families of children with high lead levels the option of water testing. They testified the program didn't start for months because the health department had to consult the city attorney.

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