June 9, 2009

Former public health administrator criticized for delaying progress on infant mortality program

Attorney Matthew Mac Kelly (left) with Janelle Grammer (right) at Grammer's
hearing before the City Council Tuesday evening.

Embattled Public Health Administrator Janelle Grammer's trial before the City Council continued Tuesday night with bruising testimony that portrayed the department head as a nonexistent leader who gave half-hearted support to a program to prevent baby deaths.

The entire trial is playing out in public at Grammer's request. It's a stunning move given the barrage of negative testimony that's coming her way from former employees and her former boss. But the highly personal case is open to the public, including the media.

The bulk of Tuesday evening was spent on testimony from former City Administrator Ben Hughes, who Grammer accused of intimidating her for taking Family Medical Leave. A state investigator dismissed Grammer's claim.

Hughes testified that when he was hired former Administrator Steve Nenonen described Grammer as an underperforming city employee who was "in over her head." Hughes said he drew the same conclusion after working as her boss. (The JT's story from the first day of the trial also reported criticism of Grammer's job performance.)

Grammer's attorney Matthew Mac Kelly, of Milwaukee, attempted to pick apart Hughes' testimony during a two-hour cross examination. A key point was that Hughes sent Grammer a performance evaluation while Grammer was on medical leave in December 2008.

Hughes said it was only a follow-up to previous performance evaluations and was not in any way a retaliation against Grammer.

Infant Mortality Program

Regardless of the outcome of Grammer's trial, unfortunate details were released about the lack of progress in establishing a program to reduce Racine's infant mortality rate.

Dr. Teresa Johnson, of UW-Milwaukee, testified Grammer's leadership was "nonexistent" on creating the program, despite the city receiving $500,000 from the state to run the program. Johnson worked from the beginning to establish a program to review and prevent infant deaths in Racine.

"She provided no leadership whatsoever," Johnson said of Grammer.

Johnson added Grammer "slowed down" city efforts to implement the program.

Grammer's attorney entered a RacinePost article into the record as evidence that the infant mortality program was making progress under Grammer's leadership. Our article from February 2009 quotes state Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, as saying the program is "moving forward" and that he's "happy" with its progress.

As background to that story, we'd been hearing that Mason wasn't happy with the progress and that he'd been working with city officials to get the infant mortality prevention program going. That was supported by a memo from Hughes stating Grammer hadn't hired nurses for the program seven months after she was first asked to make the hires.

I've been following the infant mortality committee's work in Racine because the city has the highest infant mortality rate in the state. Mason's $500,000 grant was designed to help reduce the mortality rate (aka keeping babies alive), but there seems to be relatively minor progress for a program established over a year ago.

Fortunately, the city's Health Department is now making progress, according to monthly reports to the Board of Health. At last month's meeting, Healthy Birth Outcomes Coordinator Ana Stier reported hiring two nurses to make home visits to pregnant moms, and this month the program reported 47 home visits this year and 18 total cases.

But the program is still behind schedule, Johnson testified. The city was supposed to take over data collection responsibilities by the end of 2008, but wasn't ready to take on the job, Johnson said. Instead, UW-Milwaukee retained control of the collection and then stopped altogether, because the money ran out, she said.

Acting Public Health Administrator Marcia Fernholz said Tuesday night that the city intended to resume collecting data. She added that she's seeing progress in the infant mortality program, a fact Johnson reiterated during her testimony. Johnson said the program began moving forward once Fernholz was named acting head of the Health Department.

"She was able to provide leadership," Johnson testified about Fernholz.

But Johnson said the program has been embarrassment for the city of Racine.

"I can't tell you how many times I've had to apologize in public to state leaders," she testified.

Hearing extended

To get an idea of the unusual circumstances of Grammer's hearing, no one on the City Council can remember ever holding a similar proceeding. (Usually, departing department heads reach some kind of settlement with the city and leave without demanding a trial.)

The case comes down to the city serving as prosecutor and making the case to remove Grammer, Grammer's attorney serving as the defense, the City Council is the jury and Mayor John Dickert and City Attorney Bob Weber act as judge.

The trial began Monday night and ran three hours before continuing Tuesday night for another nearly three hours. It's hardly close to finished.

The attorney representing the city said Tuesday he had six more witnesses to call and Grammer's attorney said he intended to have Grammer testify. The City Council also needs to deliberate before making a ruling.

The trial is expected to continue Thursday evening and probably extend into Friday. Alderman Aron Wisneski suggested it should continue into Saturday, if needed.

Dickert initially suggested to the council that the trial continue on June 24th and 25th, but Alderman Bob Mozol objected, saying the case should be finished as quickly as possible. Aldermen Terry McCarthy and Wisneski backed up Mozol, the lawyers got together and agreed to push on this week. (They couldn't continue Wednesday because a meeting could not be legally posted 24 hours in advance.)

Thursday's session is expected to start earlier - probably around 5:30 p.m. - to allow more testimony to be squeezed into the evening. The trial will resume with Mac Kelly's cross examination of Dr. Johnson, followed by the city's witnesses.


  1. Very important subject! Children are the future!

  2. I bet this is the first time in the city's history they also didn't have a Human Resources director. If Mayor Dickert is wise he will replace that position.

    We don't need any more of this, and how much is this costing between attorneys and everyone's time? It would have been cheaper in the longrun to keep the HR director.

    Ben Hughes was in way over his head and was not trained in dealing with personnel issues. He is probably somebody who should never deal with personnel issues.

    If the city had had a good Human Resources director I bet this wouldn't be happening right now.

  3. Anonymous 5:30, the former HR Director, Sylvia Coronado, was Janelle Grammer's best friend. By her mismanagement, she helped create the conditions involving Grammer that got the City here today.

  4. Infant Mortality extremes are not isolated to Racine, these tragedies prevail throughout SE Wisconsin and are toxin/pollution excellerated. Prenatal care programs are secondary.

  5. 5:30 a.m. - There's nothing to support your comments about Hughes. Both complaints filed against him were dismissed by the state.

  6. I don't really care about complaints to the state when I speak of Hughes. It's due to my personal observations and dealings with him one-on-one. He does not handle problems with people well.

    The purpose of a blog is so people can write their opinions, and I have reasons for my opinion.

    I didnt know that the former HR director was a good friend of Grammer's, however my statement at 5:30 am was that we needed not only a HR director, but a GOOD one.

    I strongly believe that if the city had a good HR director this whole thing would not be happening now.

  7. The reality that city/county/state/university employees cannot be fired is a sad situation, because it breeds low performance. In the private sector, not only would Grammer never have been hired for this position, but she would have been canned years ago in her entry role.

  8. I worked for the city for eight years and ended up resigning shortly after Grammer was hired (after being told by her that I could not take a day off for my father's surgery because I had no time off remaining). I found out after my resignation from an employee of the Finance Dept. that I did have vacation time remaining. I considered myself to be a valuable employee and enjoyed my work tremendously. If it weren't for her, there's no doubt I would still be with the city.

    I was her executive secretary and I can tell you that she never took any of her responsibilities seriously. She was unable to answer questions that the Board of Health members posed to her and other supporting staff (such as Marcia Fernholz and Michele Breheim) were left to pick up the pieces.

    All I can say is "what comes around goes around" and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what's been going on around there.

    Good Riddance

  9. Realist, I think part of the problem is many of those positions are union.

  10. City health director doesn't look "healthy" she kinda reminds me of the woman who played that character in "Throw Momma From The Train"

  11. It's not a union that is stopping the termination, if you look up her position/statutes so to speak under the citys website its part of the protocal for firing management

  12. I was not referring to Grammer's position being union, I was referring to government employees in general. I realize this is a different scenario.

  13. Wonder how soon it will be that she's going to file ANOTHER lawsuit? Should we take bets?

  14. I dont think she ever actually filed a lawsuit.

  15. Ok let me correct myself, file a complaint...my bad

  16. $500,000- 1/2-MILLION $'s where did it go ???

  17. anon, maybe she used it at the local McDonald's drive thru?

  18. All you Hughes bashers better repent.

  19. Hughes is still Hughes no matter the outcome of this fiasco. Still a problem.

  20. Hughes was not the problem - lazy workers were.

  21. There may be some lazy workers, but Hughes has some big issues. I predict he will have issues wherever he goes.

  22. Ben Hughes wasn't the problem - lazy workers were. Union employees CAN get fired. There are department heads that look the other way on bad employees. All they have to do is document behavior. There are several problem employees at the city that need to be fired - but the bosses are too lazy to do their job. By NOT dealing with the problem employees, they help to create a hostile work environment for the rest of the employees. That does not make a productive environment nor does it give the public their money's worth. There are several department heads that are in way over their heads. The problem was not having an HR Director nor was it Ben Hughes' fault. The problem employees were the problem. People need to start accepting responsibility for their actions - or inactions, as in this case.