Helmed by municipal rock star Bevan Baker, the Milwaukee Health Department went from stellar to sinking. It didn’t happen all at once.
Short of recently retired Police Chief Ed Flynn, no city department head was as recognizable as Bevan Baker. The health commissioner had worked in the department since 2001 and served as its leader since 2004, when Mayor Tom Barrett first took office and appointed him. In a town accustomed to The Men’s Wearhouse, Baker wore impeccable suits along with French cuffs with links, bright bow ties and colorful pocket squares.
Baker fell from grace earlier this year like a stone, resigning without warning on Jan. 11. The next day, news broke that the Health Department had, in recent months, bungled two facets of its anti-lead program meant to protect children from the powerful neurotoxin found in old paint and drinking-water pipes. For one, the number of housing units being rehabbed to cut down on lead had fallen precipitously, endangering a competitive grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. (The federal government later put the grant on hold, pending improvements.) Secondly, the department had failed to follow up with the families of about 4,000 children who had tested as elevated for lead in 2015 and 2016. Letters intended to pass on information and guidance to affected families never went out, according to records.
“He had a management team of 13 and probably didn’t trust any one of us.”
— Paul Biedrzycki, a former subordinate of Bevan Baker
Despite Baker’s aura of success, there had been tremors within his department for years. Stories told of a stifling work atmosphere, due in no small part to his controlling style, and over time Baker “became very isolated,” says Paul Biedrzycki, who retired as director of disease control and environmental health in June, shortly before HUD notified the department that the city’s lead grant was in jeopardy. Biedrzycki has denied knowing anything about the current problems before leaving, even though he oversaw the manager of the lead program.
Baker’s top managers rarely convened as a group, and when they did, Baker sometimes went on tirades, saying no one had the right to question him, only the mayor, whose office’s approval he seemed to be fixated on. “He had a management team of 13 and probably didn’t trust any one of us,” Biedrzycki says.
Baker also spent long periods of time outside of work. “There were weeks that went by and nobody saw him,” says Biedrzycki, who joined several other managers in leaving, including longtime Medical Director Geoffrey Swain.
Despite whatever rumblings made it to the mayor’s office, Barrett reappointed Baker to the post of health commissioner in 2008 and 2012 with nearly unanimous confirmation votes by the Common Council.
Later, in 2012, with a full four-year term ahead of him, Baker filed a Chapter 128 proceeding under state law, a process similar to a federal bankruptcy. While some of his subordinates, including Biedrzycki, later found out about the proceeding and puzzled over its origins, Baker never told Barrett’s office, according to spokeswoman Jodie Tabak. Baker was one of the highest paid officials in city government, making some $150,000, more than Barrett himself. His arrears were of the sort that normally plague the working poor – payday and other short-term loans.
Much has been made of the department’s 2017 policy barring employees from talking to Common Council members or the press without permission from Baker. But in recent years, not even the department’s leadership was being forthright with the council. In 2014 and 2015, years when statistics concerning the lead program could have alerted aldermen to at least some of the problems, the department failed to submit annual reports to the council’s Public Safety and Health Committee. When the department submitted 2016’s report last year, it was only because Ald. Terry Witkowski had passed an ordinance requiring it. But key information on the lead program either lacked context or was stuffed into an appendix.
“We were trying to make sense of what was going on in the Health Department,” says Witkowski, who is the only alderman to ever vote against Baker’s appointment. “When [Baker] would appear, he would talk forever and not answer your question.”
According to the Health Department’s own internal review of its lead program, released in January, the root of the problem is dwindling grant funding and an organization poorly equipped to deal with what remains of the lead program – not enough training, procedures or oversight.
In late February, Baker released a statement supporting an ongoing audit by an outside firm, which he felt would exonerate him. “Upon my direction, necessary action was taken to identify mismanagement and hold individuals accountable,” he says. “I followed city of Milwaukee protocol by initiating disciplinary action and informing executive leadership about this issue.”
In February, HUD inspectors found the city’s lead rehab program was too difficult for owners and contractors to follow, and it needed to do more than replace house windows.
Barrett told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in January he felt like he had been kept in the dark about the department’s problems. “When I heard about it, I was angry,” he said, “and I have witnesses here who can tell you I was angry.”