MILWAUKEE — Since 2018, the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission, largely considered the most powerful civilian oversight board in the country, has fallen far short of its reputation.
The group has been marred by controversy, ethics questions, various sensitive leaks of information, high rates of turnover, and after demoting former Milwaukee Police Chief Alfonso Morales, the actions of the FPC could cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars.
There are checks and balances in place to make sure the people selected to the office are vetted, but ultimately, the city’s top official, Mayor Tom Barrett, is the one who has his name tied to every member.
“I am the mayor and I think I bear responsibility,” Barrett said. “I take very seriously my responsibility to set it right.”
Currently, the FPC has its fourth Executive Director in three years, in Leon Todd. In 2018, former Executive Director MaryNell Regan resigned after allegations of violating open meetings laws and ethical concerns over an alleged relationship she had with a Milwaukee police officer. La Keisha Butler took over in May of 2017 but resigned a year later citing a family move out of state. Then, Griselda Aldrete took the office in September of 2019, leaving her position 13 months later, resigning due to the political climate at City Hall.
In addition to ethical questions from Regan, the FPC Board of Commissioners has had its own issues with ethics. A video was leaked anonymously of the FPC Chair, Steven DeVougas, sitting in on a police interview with a client questioned in a rape investigation. There was concern he could abuse his power on the FPC by retaliating against the officer questioning his client. The Ethics Board began an investigation, but ended it in March after DeVougas resigned, saying “They don’t have jurisdiction anymore.”
In what could be this current FPC’s most costly mistake, last year Chief Alfonso Morales was demoted to captain after intense meetings with the FPC. However, a Milwaukee County Judge reversed that decision and says Morales must be reinstated by early July or the city needs to reach a settlement with Morales - something that could cost the City of Milwaukee hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“I disagreed with the process by which [the FPC] demoted Chief Morales,” Barrett said. “If these were people taking my marching orders, that would not have happened in that fashion. The process would have been different.”
They may not take direction from Barrett but, in the City of Milwaukee, the mayor appoints the members of the Fire & Police Commission. So since 2004, Mayor Barrett has selected every single member of the board. The Common Council needs to confirm the mayor’s selections, but Common Council President Cavalier Johnson says by the time the appointees reach them, the Council expects them to be vetted.
“Before anybody is even able to serve on the Fire and Police Commission, they have to go through a vetting process with the mayor,” Johnson said. “The Common Council can not unilaterally appoint members of the FPC. They have to be appointed first by the administration. There should be a thorough discussion with those members to make sure they understand their roles and responsibility. That is, I think, an administrative function.”
Johnson also criticizes the mayor’s role in handling the dysfunction coming from the FPC.
“Before they even get to us, they should be vetted to make sure they are competent and ready to serve,” Johnson said. “The decision that happened last year with Alfonso Morales, the FPC made the decision to demote him, issue directives that could not be compiled within a timely manner. The City Attorney has said essentially it was wrong in how Chief Morales was demoted and his rights were violated. Before we even got to this position we’re in right now, the mayor has veto power over directives issued to a chief. He didn’t use that power.”
However, Barrett says once a member is appointed and confirmed, his hands are tied.
“I really don’t [have a say in what happens to the FPC after they’re appointed],” Barrett said. “They have a term of five years. The Common Council has the right to remove them, if they go through the process to do that. That has not occurred. I think now, this was the natural juncture to make the changes.”
The changes in the last six months are some of the largest seen in recent years. If these new three appointees are confirmed by the Common Council, nearly half the board will be changed in less than six months.
The three newest appointees are Joan Kessler, a former U.S. Attorney; Ed Fallone, a law professor at Marquette University; and LaNelle Ramey, a Milwaukee-born community leader.
The group brings a wealth of experience in a variety of areas. Kessler and Fallone have plenty of legal experience.
Kessler served as the United States Attorney for Wisconsin’s Eastern District from 1978 to 1981. She served as a family law attorney for over 20 years. For the last 16 years, she was a judge on the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. Notably, she was one of the judges to rule cities can enforce residency requirements for employees and upheld a conviction of a former aid to Gov. Scott Walker for campaigning while receiving payment by Milwaukee County.
Fallone is currently an Associate Professor at Marquette Law School. Fallone ran for the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2020, losing in the primary to both Daniel Kelly and Jill Karofsky. Karofsky would go on to win in the general election. In addition to his legal work, Fallone founded three local nonprofits: Centro Legal por Derechos Humanos, Inc., the Catholic Charities Immigration Legal Assistance Program and the Latino Community Center. He’s also served on the Board of Directors at Voces de la Frontera.
Ramey has dedicated his life to giving back to the community that raised him. He served 13 years for the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Milwaukee in various capacities. Most recently, he’s served as the Director of the Black and Latino Male Achievement Program at Milwaukee Public Schools and is the Executive Director of MENTOR Greater Milwaukee.
“The biggest asset I bring is the collaborative kind of mentality,” Ramey said. “Everything I do is, how do we collaborate but also, how do I make sure that we’re being transparent about what we want to accomplish? What we want to do? I think that asset will help me and help, hopefully, the Commission.”
“I spent 25 years or more being an advocate for various sides of various disputes,” Kessler said. “I spent 15 years being neutral in ruling on things that, if I could have started from scratch, I may have wanted to go the other way. Understanding neutrality is a really important factor in the legal system and requiring fairness and things of that nature.”
Fallone declined to participate in this interview.
While Ramey and Kessler have seen the mishaps of the FPC, neither wished to comment on it. They both are only focused on how they can help improve things moving forward.
“I think mistakes that have been made in the past, I can’t do anything about,” Kessler said. “We have got to move forward. I think maybe that’s why the mayor decided to nominate some people who had no involvement of any sort with them.”
“I look forward to kind of a clean slate, starting over and working to really make sure our community is here on a regular basis when it comes to issues or concerns with the FPC,” Ramey said. “I’m super excited about what we can do in moving forward.”
“The slate of candidates [Mayor Barrett] put up are actually pretty impressive,” Johnson said. “I’m happy to see those names. The nominees for the Fire and Police Commission are going to get much more scrutiny from members of the Common Council as they come before us for confirmation. That is the safeguard that folks in our community should expect.”
The nominees are expected to go before the Public Safety and Health Committee for hearings Thursday, June 24. The City will also hold a meeting for the public to ask questions of the newest FPC nominees. For those interested, you can register to attend the virtual meeting here.
While the City of Milwaukee potentially faces a near half-million-dollar payout to Alfonso Morales, the decisions by the mayor for the FPC appointments are arguably more costly.
The I-Team found, in 2018, the year the dysfunction really began, the FPC’s budget was $2,099,930. That budget stayed relatively stagnant for the next two years, at $2,095,637 in 2019 and $2,727,999 in 2020.
However, the budget more than doubled the 2018 figure this year, clocking in at $5,073,394. So now, more than ever, the mayor is putting the city’s money, and Milwaukeean’s trust, on the line.
Barrett is feeling confident, saying he hopes one of these three, or the newly confirmed Amanda Avalos, take over as Chair of the Board of Commissioners.
“I was very involved in choosing these three individuals,” Barrett said. “They’re three individuals I know. Three individuals who have a track record and, look at them. I went out of my way this time to get three individuals I feel very confident the Council can support without hesitation. I want to turn the page. I want new leadership. I would love to see the next Chair of the Commission be someone new to the Commission. I don’t want to see any carryovers.”