Former Milwaukee health commissioner Bevan K. Baker. (Photo: Rick Wood / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
Former Milwaukee health commissioner Bevan Baker broke his nearly two-year silence Monday, arguing other departments and Mayor Tom Barrett are to blame for mismanagement in the city’s lead program.
“The public statements that have been made about me over the past two years are defamatory and false,” Baker wrote. “Most notably, nearly two years after my departure there is a concerted effort to misrepresent my role as Health Commissioner to be (the) only individual responsible for the lead service line removal and lead in water concerns. This is false.”
An internal Health Department report that year found that staffing shortages, inadequate training, high turnover and poor coordination contributed to the failure by its lead prevention program to follow up with thousands of families who had lead-poisoned children.
In his letter, Baker did not address the organizational issues brought to light in the city’s 2018 report.
On Monday, Baker blamed the Department of Public Works and Milwaukee Water Works, saying they were the main cabinet-level agencies responsible for lead service line removal and concerns about lead in water. He wrote that they were at fault for the mismanagement of the lead program.
He also wrote that he had warned Barrett about “serious public health implications” after attending a January 2016 meeting during which the commissioner of the Department of Public Works and superintendent of Milwaukee Water Works presented findings regarding the impact of the removal of lead service lines.
Baker also wrote that he had taken additional steps to address the issue.
He called on the city’s Common Council to “fully and fairly investigate the serious problems that continue to exist due to mismanagement of this issue by the mayor and others in his office.”
“The Mayor’s concerns about the Health Department’s lead program have always focused on protecting Milwaukee children from lead exposure,” city spokesman Jeff Fleming said in a statement. “Since the Mayor first learned of the problems two years ago, the Health Department has made good progress on its lead efforts. The Mayor continues to be focused on the future and making sure Milwaukee children are kept as safe as possible.”
Baker’s attorney, William Sulton, contends the circumstances surrounding Baker’s resignation are “another falsehood.” He said parents learn immediately of their children’s elevated blood-lead levels from the pediatrician performing the test. He said the Health Department sent thousands of “secondary notification” letters and that about 100 families received those letters late.
Current Milwaukee Commissioner of Health Jeanette Kowalik said in October that one of the department’s primary efforts has been reorganizing the lead program, including focusing on following up quickly with children with lead poisoning, pre- and post-inspection in the lead abatement process and outreach aimed at prevention.
Asked why Baker would have resigned if he did nothing wrong, Sulton said Baker was a mayoral appointee and the mayor can ask them to resign at any time.
Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm said in an April letter that there was an ongoing local and state criminal investigation into the City of Milwaukee Health Department.
But Sulton said he doesn’t believe there ever was an investigation into the Health Department.
Ald. Tony Zielinski, one of the candidates running against Barrett in April’s election, said in a statement Monday that Baker’s allegations are “very serious.”
State Sen. Lena Taylor, also a candidate for mayor, did not respond to a reporter’s request for an interview.
Contact Alison Dirr at 414-224-2383 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @AlisonDirr.
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