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Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013

Aldermen Call for More Public Input on Fire and Police Commission Nominees

Is the current system obsolete?

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Although its mission is to grant Milwaukee residents oversight of the fire and police departments, the Fire and Police Commission (FPC) is coming under fire for its lack of public input—specifically, its limited public vetting of nominees to the commission.

Last Thursday, four of five members of the Milwaukee Common Council’s Public Safety Committee voted to support Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s nominee to FPC, Ann Wilson. The full Common Council is scheduled to vote on Wilson’s nomination on Feb. 5.

Although public testimony was overwhelmingly in her favor, Wilson’s nomination wasn’t without controversy. Two committee members—Ald. Robert Bauman and Ald. Jim Bohl—voted to hold her nomination pending more public outreach.

Both aldermen—as well as Ald. Milele Coggs, who is not on the committee but gave testimony during the hearing—argued for a more open, transparent nomination process that would set a precedent for future FPC appointments, which are imminent.

Currently, the FPC is made up of seven members, although Barrett can extend that to nine members. Two spots are vacant and three members’ terms expire in July. In addition to Wilson’s appointment, Barrett can nominate between four and six members in the next six months.

Coggs, backed by Bauman and Bohl, argued for a more inclusive process that involves more community members, especially young people.

“We should be looking and thinking outside the box for those ways of inclusion and that shouldn’t all fall on the council,” Coggs said at the committee meeting. “That should also be the Fire and Police Commission’s and the mayor’s responsibility. That’s the cry that I hear from the community.”

Coggs argued that the nomination process should be open and transparent before the confirmation stage.

“If you are not known to the mayor or a friend of the mayor or a friend of a friend, how are you ever going to get the opportunity to serve?”

 

The Most Public Vetting Ever

Although the FPC’s nomination process was criticized last week, Wilson’s nomination received a more public vetting than has happened in the past.

According to state statutes, the mayor appoints FPC candidates and the Common Council has the power to confirm. Other than the committee meeting, there’s no required forum for the public to weigh in on nominees.

In Wilson’s case, the mayor and council members took additional steps to include the public. According to a letter from Barrett, Wilson met with a group of local pastors and members of the Urban League, who support her nomination, prior to last week’s hearing.

Anyone can suggest a candidate for the FPC. Wilson, a manager for the Milwaukee Housing Authority’s Hillside Family Resource Center and a Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) board member, submitted her name directly to Barrett.

Ald. Terry Witkowski, chair of the Public Safety Committee, moved the confirmation meeting to the full Common Council chambers and allowed public testimony, a first. Previously, only aldermen testified and questioned the nominee.

Witkowski told the Shepherd that he thought the nomination hearing gave the public adequate input, although he may tweak it in the future, perhaps by holding the meeting on an evening when more people would likely attend.

“We’ll adjust as needed,” Witkowski said.

He said he was open to a new process, but the critics “were not definitive on what they were looking for.”

Michael Tobin, executive director of the FPC, said that if the Common Council wanted a more public vetting process, “it needs to look in the mirror first.”

Tobin said the public vetting for the appointment of any commissioner or any board member to any city position, according to state law, is in the hands of the Common Council.

“That’s the process that’s already set up,” Tobin said. “That’s the vetting process that, until now, the Common Council has not even attempted to utilize.”

 

Hiring and Firing the Chiefs

But Ald. Robert Bauman, who voted to hold Wilson’s nomination and also opposed her appointment, told the Shepherd that he wanted to see a total revamping of the FPC (which dates back to 1885) and its nomination process.

“The broader question is, is this structure well suited for the 21st century and modern, urban, diverse America?” Bauman said in an interview. “I would argue that it isn’t. That’s sort of the framework that I’m coming from, that the entire process is basically outmoded and has sort of built-in unaccountability.”

He said that Milwaukee residents upset with fire or police service typically call their alderman, not FPC members, although the Common Council has no power over the Milwaukee fire or police departments.

And while the FPC is charged with overseeing those agencies—which Bauman is careful to point out are the two largest city departments—members are not elected and are more or less unaccountable to the public.

“The public has never been [involved] and to some extent the Fire and Police Commission system was designed to cut the public out,” Bauman said. “Those people aren’t elected. They don’t have to campaign on their philosophy of policing or how they would approach matters. They don’t have to satisfy anyone but the mayor.”

He said Barrett should cast a wider net when selecting members, perhaps by tapping someone with a criminal justice, academic or legal background who can provide more expert and critical oversight of the departments. He also suggested that nominees appear at public meetings throughout the community and asked that the mayor put forward multiple candidates for the council to choose from.

“He could do a better job,” Bauman said of the mayor’s appointments. “This is not a ceremonial, honorary position. This is a really serious, powerful position.”

He also suggested changing state law so that the fire and police chiefs are nominated by the mayor and confirmed by the Common Council, just like other department heads, so that the chiefs are more accountable to the council and the public.

The FPC’s Tobin scoffed at Bauman’s suggestion.

“That’s exactly the system we ended in 1885, to take away the political pressures from the chief appointments,” Tobin said. “The system has worked very well for 127 years now. I don’t see any need to change it at this point.”