City leaders clash over creating watchdog job in wake of lead crisis
Council wants inspector who reports to aldermen
City leaders are clashing over the creation of an independent watchdog aimed at preventing problems like the recent lead crisis that has rocked the Milwaukee Health Department.
Mayor Tom Barrett told the Journal Sentinel that he vetoed a measure approved by the Common Council to create an inspector general at City Hall because he’s concerned about the potential for position to be compromised by “political interference.”
“I share the sentiment that there is a benefit to having an inspector general,” Barrett said.
“But we did some research, and as we looked at other cities who have used an inspector general, the common denominator was independence from both the legislative branch and the executive branch.”
Under the measure, which was overwhelmingly approved by the council late last month, the inspector general position would report directly to aldermen.
The goal of the position would be to closely monitor departmental administration and activities citywide, “while being outside of the administration,” the ordinance said.
“If we move in this direction, we need to do it right,” Barrett wrote in his Oct. 3 veto letter.
“That means the position needs to be free from political interference and needs to be empowered to investigate all aspects of city government including those under the jurisdiction of the city clerk, absent political interference.”
Barrett warned that political disagreements could determine what departments or individuals are investigated if the inspector general was a political appointee of the council.
He added that whistleblowers may be deterred if they thought political influence could lead to retaliation.
“Liquor license applicants and applicants for Community Development Block Grant funding would not have independent recourse if they felt their approval or denial was politically motivated,” Barrett wrote. “Moreover, investigations into city clerk and council contracts would not have independent scrutiny.”
The measure passed easily last month on a 12-1-1 vote.
Aldermen may attempt to override Barrett’s veto at next Tuesday’s full council meeting.
The council originally created the position to oversee the troubled Health Department, which has been reeling for months over failures in its Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program.
But a council committee amended it so the inspector general would oversee all city departments rather than just the health agency.
Still, Comptroller Martin Matson warned in a letter last month that placing the inspector general in the city clerk’s office provides the potential for “politically motivated audits.”
Ald. Mark Borkowski, who voted in support of the measure, said he did not want the issue to become a political “power play.”
“Some of us are very frustrated with what had happened in the Police Department, what has happened in the Health Department, and kind of just said, ‘OK, we’ve got to be better,’ “he said. “I’ve been disappointed in the leadership from the mayor’s office.”
But he added that the inspector general doesn’t necessarily need to report to aldermen.
“I don’t like the way it’s become a political football,” Borkowski said. “But we can’t allow things to get the way they got.”