One question looms over Janelle Grammer’s show trial before the City Council: What does the city’s public health administrator hope to accomplish?
Grammer’s increasingly bizarre trial rolled through its third day Wednesday minus an attorney. Grammer dismissed her counsel and pushed ahead representing herself. The decision dismantled any pretense of a formal hearing and created the sad display of a disgraced manager trying to settle personal scores while the city’s attorney laid out serious, systematic problems with the agency responsible for protecting Racine’s public health.
The bombshell of the night came from Jeff Schmidt, an epidemiologist in charge of the city’s STD clinic. Schmidt laid out a series of problems that undermined local resources to test and treat people for sexually transmitted diseases over the past two years. Schmidt attributed the clinic’s decline to Grammer’s poor leadership.
Problems began in mid-2006 when the nurse practitioner who worked at the STD clinic asked for her first raise in three years, Schmidt said. Grammer didn’t respond to the request for a couple of months, and then the nurse-practitioner left after the eventual offer was too low, he said.
That left the STD clinic understaffed, but Grammer failed to move at finding a replacement, Schmidt said. The position remained unfilled a year later – Grammer scheduled one interview in eight months – and the city outsourced the clinic to the Racine Family Health Clinic at St. Luke’s Hospital.
But once RFHC took over the clinic it didn’t follow federal standards for treating people with STDs or signs of STDs, Schmidt said. For example, people showing signs of an STD are supposed to be treated under federal guidelines. While the city followed those guidelines, the RFHC sent some home without treatment, increasing the risk of STDs spreading in the community. In one case, a patient went in with genital warts but wasn’t tested or treated for other STDs, again increasing the risk of spreading the diseases. In one email cited during testimony Schmidt wrote: “This is horrible public health.”
The issue is particularly acute for Racine because the city has the second highest number of STDs in Wisconsin behind only Milwaukee.
Schmidt testified he raised dozens concerns about how RFHC was running the clinic, but was ignored by Grammer and doctors who said he was upset the clinic was taken away from the city. He described Grammer’s leadership and communication skills as poor.
It was also pointed out that the STD clinic – formally known as the Sexually Transmitted Infection Clinic - was brought back under city control during Grammer’s absence as public health administrator. The clinic, which returned to the city in May, is now open Mondays and Wednesdays (call 262-636-9498 for times). Marcia Fernholz is serving as interim director pending the outcome of Grammer’s trial.
Grammer tried to refute Schmidt’s allegations by claiming he was unaware of a series of conversations she had with top city officials, including former Mayor Gary Becker, that tied her hands. The exchange seemed to summarize a major part of Grammer’s defense. She’s alleging her bosses placed her in an impossible position to run her department.
Grammer also gave a glimpse of personal strife she’s endured in recent years. In a series of odd questions, she asked Schmidt if he knew her father was critically ill, if he knew she had power of attorney in the matter and if he knew she had to make the decision to resuscitate her father.
“Do you think there might have been more on my plate?” Grammer asked Schmidt.
Visibly confused by the questions, Schmidt responded: “I don’t know how to respond to that.”
At 8:58 p.m., nearly four hours into Wednesday’s hearing, Grammer heavily sighed into the microphone. Her frustration echoed through the silent City Council chambers and did well to summarize the general feeling in the room.
The city’s attorney, Michael Cohen of Meissner Tierney Fisher & Nichols in Milwaukee, has four more witnesses to call before handing the hearing over to Grammer, who can then call her own witnesses. That all means a long trial will drag on at least another day, if not more.
City Clerk Janice Johnson-Martin brought sandwiches, snacks and sodas Wednesday for the City Council, which is serving as the jury in determining Grammer’s fate. The council has already met at least 11 hours on the matter and still has to spend time debating the case’s merits.
It’s not helping that Grammer admitted on her own that she’s not much of an attorney. She started dozens of questions with the phrase, “Are you aware …” and struggled to cross-examine witnesses that spent much of their testimony trashing her reputation. The fact that the whole proceeding is occurring in public – at Grammer’s request – adds a circus atmosphere to the event.
No matter the outcome – the city needs 12 votes from the City Council and the mayor – to remove Grammer as a department head. It’s highly likely that they’ll vote to fire her, but as a member of Racine’s Board of Health wondered, if Grammer does keep her job, how will she ever be able to lead the department?