Mayor refutes ex-health commissioner's memo, says he wasn't warned of some lead program issues

MILWAUKEE -- Addressing reporters for the first time since his former health commissioner denied wrongdoing in Milwaukee's ongoing lead crisis, Mayor Tom Barrett said he's looking to the future.

Monday morning, Barrett will make his first State of the City speech since problems surfaced in the Milwaukee Health Department. Errors at the agency put children's lives at risk, and an order discouraged staffers from blowing the whistle to elected officials. Former Commissioner Bevan Baker resigned in January.

During a media event to preview the speech Sunday afternoon, Barrett made clear he won't be looking back.

"I'm interested in moving forward and that's what I'm going to continue to do," the mayor told reporters.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett

Bevan Baker

In a February 20th memo, Baker wrote that he "did not engage in any wrongdoing" and, when problems arose, he "initiated disciplinary action" and notified people in "executive leadership" of issues in the lead program.

Barrett said those people did not include him.

"I have seen the (Bevan Baker) memorandum. He does not say me. He uses the word 'executive leadership,'" Barrett said. "I'm focusing right now on doing what we can to improve the situation not only in the health department but also in the community."

Robert Miranda, an activist with the group Freshwater For Life Action Coalition, called it "absurd" that the mayor wasn't counting himself among "executive leadership."

Robert Miranda

"Don't try to continue to pass it off on other members of your staff," Miranda said. "You are thoroughly briefed on everything that goes on within all the programs under your leadership."

Miranda said his group is considering suing the city over access to records regarding the lead situation.

The city Health Department may have failed to notify thousands of families whose children had high levels of lead in their blood. The department allowed some kids with high blood-lead levels to return to their homes without making sure they were safe, an internal investigation found. The agency  had an order -- signed by Baker in October 2017 -- that barred its staffers from contacting elected officials with their concerns.

Barrett said he would welcome Patricia McManus, the city's interim health commissioner, at Monday's speech. Barrett protested the Common Council's decision to install McManus, refusing to sign the legislation that put her in the position. He said he is putting together a team to help the interim commissioner.

"I want her to succeed. I want the health department to succeed. I want the city to succeed. That's again -- I'm looking to the future," Barrett said.

Barrett said he'll look to the past in one way -- to promote a big drop in the percentage of Milwaukee kids whose blood has tested high for lead over the past two decades. However, FOX6 revealed in January the numbers have crept up slightly over the past three years.

Barrett said he'll also call for the creation of 10,000 affordable housing units over the next 10 years and said he's ready to commit significant financing to spur that development.