City Attorney Fires Back at Claims of Mismanagement

Tearman Spencer says steep turnover and other problems in his office trace to his predecessor.

Tearman Spencer’s first 18 months in office have been anything but smooth.

The embattled Milwaukee city attorney stood before a group of reporters in the City Hall rotunda on Friday morning to address the operation of his office.

Spencer insisted that he inherited many of the problems that have plagued his office and claimed that a slew of staff departures stemmed from insufficient salaries and the process of change to new leadership after he unseated nine-term incumbent Grant Langley in the April 2020 election.

“What I want you to know is that when I ran, I won the election. You know the numbers,” Spencer said on Friday. “That was reflective of the change people wanted.”

Former staffers, however, have painted a different picture, describing to Milwaukee Magazine a reign of fear, sexism and potential ethical violations under Spencer. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel also has reported allegations of sexual harassment by Spencer and a mass exodus of staffers for reasons not tied to pay or loyalty to Langley.


 

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But Spencer repeatedly brought up pay as a motivating factor for the staff departures in his office and put the blame on the city’s alders. “A lot of them are leaving because of money,” Spencer said. “I’ve said to the council, if you want to make things better, give them the money that they ask for.”

He described his employees as civil servants who are “the backbone of our city,” some of whom haven’t received a pay raise in “five to 10 years.” “I, for one, believe in treating them with utmost respect. We have to let them know they are appreciated,” Spencer said.

He then specifically pointed the finger at Ald. Michael Murphy, chair of the council’s Finance and Personnel Committee. “I ask you, Alderman Murphy, to make that change,” Spencer said.

“But I’m not trying to make this about Murphy. What I’m trying to make this about is working together,” Spencer said. “I think we can work through all of this, and given the proper opportunities to sit down and make our business the business of the city, we can move things forward.”

In a telephone interview on Friday, Murphy noted that he doesn’t have the individual authority to approve raises for current employees in Spencer’s office.

“I’m surprised he doesn’t understand that,” Murphy said. “I don’t have that power. The mayor, in his executive budget, determines raises. Then it comes to the full Common Council, but I don’t have the sole authority.”

Murphy said he does have the authority to approve, through his role as chairman of the council’s Finance and Personnel Committee, salaries for newly hired employees in the City Attorney’s office.

“I’ve granted every single request that’s been made,” Murphy said. “He has basically hired over 20 new attorneys and he’s usually requesting enhanced compensation for each and every one when they come in.

The City Attorney’s Office is authorized for 35 assistant city attorneys and the office has 56 positions overall, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has reported.

Spencer blamed the Common Council for failing to work with him to improve the conditions inside his office, adding that he shouldn’t be held accountable for anything that occurred during Langley’s administration. “How could I create all of these problems that date back five to 10 years ago? We’re doing the best that we can with the resources that we have,” Spencer said.

Spencer said he has extended an “olive branch” to Murphy and the council, to no avail.

“I’m more than willing to sit down and talk to him,” Murphy said. “He just has to pick up the phone and ask for a time to meet. He hasn’t done that. But this issue isn’t about me and him. The big issue is about his office and the service he is providing to the citizens of Milwaukee and his clients, the Common Council and others. Obviously, there’s been a lot of turmoil in his office, which has been documented by our own Employee Relations office.”

Some of the issues are tied to sex discrimination, Murphy said.

“That and the fact that there has been a huge number of staff that has left his office,” Murphy said. “You lose a vast amount of experience, which can have detrimental impacts because you need experienced municipal attorneys who can handle very serious cases, whether before the federal or state courts. What all of us at the council are hoping to get to is a point where there isn’t so much drama in his office and that we can have some sense of consistency.”

Spencer denied that he has shown any bias in his hiring practices. “I try to be fair and open,” he said. “I judge them on their merits.”

Spencer hinted that he is evaluating whether certain actions by Murphy and others on the council, which he didn’t elaborate on, are possibly ripe for litigation.

“They are of great concern to me from a legal perspective,” Spencer said. “I’d like to try to work through that.”

Spencer spent several minutes during the press conference berating the Journal Sentinel’s coverage of his office. Two Journal Sentinel reporters, Dan Bice and Alison Dirr, attended the session. Spencer repeatedly ignored them when they attempted to ask questions while telling them he would only issue prepared statements to the state’s largest newspaper in the future.

Spencer took a limited number of questions from reporters toward the end of the press conference. He wouldn’t provide an answer when Bice asked how many vacancies still existed in the City Attorney’s office. Spencer responded when another reporter asked the same question.

“We just filled two or three others. There may still be two or three openings,” Spencer said.

He then shifted the conversation back to compensation as the primary reasons for staff departures.

“I had in-depth conversations and the conversations centered around money,” he said. “I can’t control it.”

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.