Common Council Quizzes Mayor and Health Department on Lead Program Glitches

Jan 18, 2018

As Steering & Rules Committee chair Ashanti Hamilton opened Wednesday's special meeting, he described the moment as pivotal to Milwaukee.  He called for thoughtfulness and urgency.

Committee chair Ashanti Hamilton at Wednesday's meeting.
Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio

“The more we learn about the consequences of lead exposure, the clearer it is that the highest degree of care and caution must be given, especially to our most vulnerable communities,” Hamilton said.

Members of the public and media in the room expected to be ushered out. The word around town was the committee would move to a closed session.

Hamilton says the council decided otherwise. “We want this to be an example of our commitment to transparency and also a commitment to action,” he said.

Hamilton invited Mayor Barrett to present his case publicly. “This was brought to my attention in the last 10 days,” the Mayor said.

Last week Barrett announced thousands of families whose children were tested from 2015 through 2017 found to have elevated blood lead levels, might not have received official notification from the city’s health department.

Mayor Tom Barrett
Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio

The Mayor said while he gets to the bottom of what went wrong within the health department, he intends to send letters to every family and offer their kids free lead testing.

“And that’s where I want our energy to be right now. Let’s get the notices out, let’s make sure we get these kids tested. I know that there’s going to be an investigation. I think it’s appropriate to look at that in the investigation.” Barrett added, “Right now, I want to make sure we’re addressing first and foremost the health concerns."

Milwaukee's health department has been under fire. Community groups have raised concerns about the risk of lead exposure from old pipes feeding water into tens of thousands of Milwaukee homes and want the department to step up public education and testing.

In the meantime Sandy Rotar, with the health department, said her team is working its way through stacks of documents. “The information was not entered into the database for elevated blood lead levels appropriately.” She added, “So what we’ve been doing is going through every single case and doing a chart audit.”

Alderwoman Chantia Lewis was stunned the health department didn’t have lead program data at its fingertips. “It just seems like it’s sloppy bookkeeping and no one made sure that we had proper records and documentation.”

Sandy Rotar responded: “There was a decision made a long time ago that the information was only entered by the nursing team and all of the lead risk assessor information was kept on paper copies. I would agree with you that is a huge void that we hope to address rather quickly.”

Council members seemed consistently flabbergasted.

Although Milwaukee has a longstanding lead paint abatement program, through which homes are assessed and remediated, the health department just began offering to test families' water at the beginning of 2018.

Alderwoman Lewis said, “I’m just trying to figure out why are we just now starting on January 2 when we’ve been dealing with this for the last several years."

To which, Sandy Rotar responded, “There were some legal issues that needed to be reviewed by the city attorney’s office before we could go in and start doing the testing and that was received late last year."

Rotar said her department made the request in April of 2017.

Sherrie Tussler, with the Hunger Task Force, left the meeting with more heightened concern than before.

The organization has called on the city to better inform the public about the risks of lead in water and at the same time develop a comprehensive plan to remove tens of thousands of lead pipes.

“It seems there are more people involved, and more people who are aware of the depth of the problem. I guess I wouldn’t call for the mayor’s resignation as much as I might call on the health department staff, and we should hire some qualified people who are really committed to the health and safety of our city’s population,” Tussler said.

Questions will likely outweigh answers as multiple probes dig into the Milwaukee Health Department’s performance. Some want to see an independent review.

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