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Don’t Be Fooled by the Campaign to Save Héctor Colón’s Job

Issue of the Week

Sep. 20, 2016
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Reappointments of department heads tend to be routine affairs. But Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele’s reappointment of Health and Human Services Director Héctor Colón is anything but routine. 

In fact, the county, local leaders and the dark-money group Milwaukee Works—apparently led by Abele protégé Dan Adams—have developed a full-blown PR push to try to persuade Milwaukee County supervisors to approve Colón’s reappointment, which goes to the full board on Thursday.

But the PR blitz hasn’t worked so far. Last week, the Health and Human Needs Committee vote 3-2 to reject Colón’s reappointment.

Now, Colón is a nice guy and he has done an adequate job at best for the county. But if he and Abele had put even half as much effort into engaging the community on human services matters in a normal democratic manner, Colón wouldn’t need to campaign to retain his job. Colón talks a good game about being community-focused, but his record in office shows that he is anything but open and transparent. 

For example, Colón’s administration required Behavioral Health Division employees and vendors doing business with it to sign gag orders last year, which prevents them from in any way criticizing the administration in public. No wonder why those providing testimony last week—including Abele in a rare appearance before the board—spoke glowingly of Colón. The only speakers who critiqued Colón were county supervisors and members of the public who don’t do business with the county.

Last week, supervisors chastised Colón for not doing enough to bring Milwaukee County youth back from the troubled Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake. Supervisors became positively incensed when Colón admitted that he waited to tell supervisors that there had been a shocking five suicide attempts there in a 36-hour period recently and that youth are asking to be put in solitary confinement to avoid the racial slurs of staff. 

In addition, Colón is trying to promote the fact that the number of people admitted to the county’s psychiatric hospital has decreased under his watch. What he hasn’t explained is that because of the hospital’s staffing shortages, the 60-bed capacity hospital can only accept 47-48 adult patients on average. Use of physical restraints is well above the hospital’s goals. The family of Brandon Johnson, who died in the hospital in October 2012, is currently suing the county in federal court. But Colón failed to mention any of that. 

Colón has also stood in the way of letting the all-appointee Milwaukee County Mental Health Board become a truly transparent oversight body for the Behavioral Health Division. Instead, he and his administration helped to shut down debate, don’t provide data on programs, and push no-bid, last-minute contracts on the board. He’s apparently managed to steer almost $800,000 worth of contracts to Racine-based Kane Communications for PR work, which should be invested in county services for the elderly, disabled and mentally ill.

And during a time when we should be welcoming new group homes into the community, Colón’s hardline tactics on the development of the Uncas Park neighborhood group home have worked against his goal to place struggling Milwaukeeans into the community. If Colón had been more open with the neighbors and the local elected officials, the tension in the Uncas Park neighborhood wouldn’t be so high almost a year after it opened.

We hope that the supervisors don’t fall for the slick—and at times over-the-top and embarrassing—PR blitz to help Héctor Colón retain his job. We ask them to look at the facts and decide if he is the best one to take care of the county’s most vulnerable residents. We vote no.

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