Mayor Barrett fields tough questions about lead level notifications at special council meeting

An investigation has begun into why the Milwaukee Health Department failed to notify thousands of families about elevated lead levels in their children.

During a special common council committee meeting Wednesday afternoon, Mayor Tom Barrett said he only learned about this issue on January 4.

But the time period in question goes back to 2015. Several questions were asked about why it took so long to learn about this and what happened in 2015 to create this issue. Barrett replied, "that's part of the mystery."

Barrett said during the meeting that last year alone, the health department can not find any documentation that notification was made to 500 families where children tested high for lead.

"It certainly appears that those letters were produced, but were those letters sent out?" asked Barrett. "Those 500 letters that were documented, were they sent out? Was it sloppy bookkeeping or were they never sent out? I don't have the answer to that question."

He says health providers have a legal requirement to notify families when children test high for lead, in addition to the health department's notification.

"I have no reason to believe that wasn't occurring," he said. "I believe that happened, can I say that with certainty? No."

Because it's unclear who did and didn't receive a letter, Barrett says 8,000 new letters are going out to all families.

But some aldermen are saying that's not enough.

"I assume you have no objection to a thorough investigation?" asked Ald. Bob Donovan to Barrett. "This does involve federal grants...you wouldn't have any objection to the U.S. Attorney investigation?"

Barrett replied, "I am far more interested in solving the problem right now, that's my paramount concern."

Earlier in the day, the common council voted unanimously to allow an outside audit of the health department.

"What else could possibly be going on in that department that we’re not aware of?" said Ald. Tony Zielinski. "The sooner we get to the bottom of what’s going on, the better off we’re going to be in terms of coming up with a plan of action to deal with it."

Zielinski asked the mayor if he would sign his approval of the audit right away so it can begin. The mayor said he wants to see it first, but that he's happy for it to take place.

What's unclear is how the city will pay for it.

"One thing is absolutely sure, we have to have this audit done," said Zielinski. "We can not continue to operate in the dark. We can not count on accurate and adequate information coming from the health department and the public health is too important for us to risk that."

In the fallout from this, the City of Milwaukee Health Commissioner Bevan Baker resigned, so he was not available to answer questions during the meeting.

Barrett was asked if Baker voluntarily resigned or if the mayor asked him to. Barrett's response was that they both agreed new leadership was needed.

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