Barrett’s health commissioner appointee Jeanette Kowalik wins committee approval

Common Council slated to vote on appointment Wednesday

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Jeanette Kowalik, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s choice to lead the city’s health department, stressed she would promote greater transparency in the department if confirmed as the next health commissioner during a hearing Tuesday.

Jeanette Kowalik

The city’s public safety and health committee voted unanimously Tuesday to approve Kowalik’s appointment, which will be taken up by the common council on Wednesday.

Interim commissioner Patricia McManus has led the department since February, following the resignation of former commissioner Bevan Baker. Baker stepped down in January after information surfaced that the families of children who tested positive for elevated lead levels may not have been properly notified over the last three years.

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Barrett announced in July his plan to appoint Kowalik as health commissioner.

Kowalik is currently associate director of women’s and infant health for the Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization. Her career has also included positions with several health departments, including Milwaukee, Madison, Wauwatosa and Chicago.

Kowalik laid out plans Tuesday regarding how she would work to improve the culture and employee morale within the health department. Kowalik said she would promote greater transparency and accountability by making data more accessible and reporting more regularly to the community, Common Council and mayor’s office.

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“The days of operating in the dark will be abolished,” she said.

Kowalik vowed to establish a board of health and to secure the department’s accreditation from the Public Health Accreditation Board.

Other priorities include increasing diversity of staff members, improving training related to health equity and dismantling racism, she said.

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A native of Milwaukee, Kowalik said she’s experienced the challenges of overcoming poverty and being a single mother, having completed her three degrees while raising a son and working full-time.

“I’m pursuing this position to serve my hometown,” she said.

Kowalik received her bachelor’s of science degree in health care administration from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She earned a master’s in health promotion from Northern Illinois University and a PhD in population health from UWM.

Board members stressed that the change in leadership comes at a critical juncture for the department. Kowalik’s presentation on Tuesday immediately followed a committee hearing with McManus, who fielded questions from committee members concerning the department’s progress in cleaning up homes affected by lead poisoning.

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