Op Ed: The curious case of Hector Colon
Inside the Milwaukee County Courthouse, the public could feel the temperature rise as tensions flared on September 23.
“Under Hector Colon’s leadership, Milwaukee County has reduced chronic homelessness by 70%, has converted a $14.8M budget deficit to a $17.4M budget surplus, and created over 400 new supportive housing units for our community’s most vulnerable. I was proud to put my full support behind Hector Colon’s reappointment. While the originally proposed appointment of a 4-year term was not a possibility, I am proud of my colleagues on the County Board for working together, recognizing the importance of retaining Hector Colon, for allowing a true compromise to move forward.”
– Milwaukee County Supervisor Deanna Alexander
The reason for tensions stemmed from a crowd of Milwaukee’s Hispanic Community, who came out in force on September 22 for an individual deeply they supported, Health and Human Services Director, Hector Colon. During the Milwaukee County Board meeting, when the business item addressing Colon’s tenure came up for a vote, “Do The Right Thing, Stand With Hector” signs were immediately displayed around the room.
With his appointed term over, it was time for the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors to review Colon’s record of public service, weighing his accomplishments and failures. While the Director of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the County Board both service the County of Milwaukee and their constituents, the big difference in the roles was that County Board Members were elected officials, while Hector Colon was not.
As such, it was their job to confirm or reject appointees. That raised the valid question, if Hector Colon was not an elected official, then under what authority was he held accountable?
Colon had a mandate because County Executive Chris Abele appointed him. Since Abele was elected by the voters, he was empowered to fill County offices. County Board Members, however, were also elected by the public to review appointments. This tension between County authority created much of the controversy.
State Rep. Jo Casta Zamarippa, said during the first “Stand With Hector” rally, ‘This should not be about politics.’ Yet even positions like Director of Health and Human Services, that are supposed to be above political struggles, almost never are.
Colon saved the County money. His background experience consisted of positions involving budgeting and revenue forecasting, as well as fund developing. Colon’s position was created to save Milwaukee County from the deficit it was routinely incurring with their mental health and human services duties. In the effort to streamline the previous system, programs and standards were deregulated. That allowed facilities to avoid accreditation, which resulted in multiple lapses with acceptable facility quality.
Milwaukee’s Hilltop Mental Health Unit, for example, was a location strife with multiple issues during the last phase of how the County system was previous managed. It was closed down at the beginning of 2015. Even though it eliminated almost 70 jobs, the community could not make a case to keep it open. As a result, it was Colon’s duty to close the ailing facility.
Colon also helped provide the County with a $56.6 million surplus from 2012 – 2016, according to a study by his own Department of Health and Human Services. He also has helped reduce chronic homelessness by 70% since July 2015, and ended the waiting list for more than 3,000 individuals with disabilities in 2012. For years, when citizens were discharged from emergency services, they would have to get on a list for long term care. Now patients have the ability to get a reply for assistance within 24 hours. This effort led to a 30% reduction in acute inpatient admissions, as well as a reported 14% reduction of E.R. visits for mental health issues from 2011 to 2013, according to a Public Policy Forum report.
The Health and Human Needs Committee voted to recommend the rejection of a second appointment for Hector Colon one week prior, on September 15, as the Health and Human Services Director. With the prospect of losing his position, allies from all over the area pleaded Colon’s case.
With Former Governor Doyle and Mayor Tom Barrett being the biggest supporters, many other senior officials signed on to endorse him, like Democratic State Rep. Jo Casta Zamarippa, Senator Lena Taylor, and even Republicans like Senator Alberta Darling and Rep. Dale Kooyenga. Along with UMOS, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Pathfinders, the United Community Center, Colon’s efforts for the community was reflected by the public and private sector organizations who rallied behind him.
When Colon stepped into his newly crated office, he set some very bold goals for himself and his administration. In February 2013, he proposed a set of six core values for the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
1. We respect the dignity and worth of each individual we serve and with whom we work.
2. We act with honesty and integrity, adhering to the highest standards of moral and ethical principles through our professional and personal behavior.
3. We strive for excellence, implementing the best practices and measuring performance toward optimal outcomes.
4. We work collaboratively, fostering partnerships with others in our service networks and with the community.
5. We are good stewards of the resources entrusted to us, using them efficiently and effectively to fulfill our mission.
6. We honor cultural diversity and are culturally competent and sensitive.
Ultimately, the County Board approved Colon’s second reappointment with an amendment to restrict it to a two year term. The amendment passed with a 10-7 vote in favor. The final vote on approving of the reappointment of the Director of DHHS passed with an 11-6 vote in favor of Colon remaining.
What the process and events around the nomination highlighted what the future meant for the Department of Health and Human Services. It sought to define the role of the Director, and who the position was accountable to.
The Mental Health Board was designed to allow accomplished experts in the private sector help mold a public program, eliminate waste, and create efficient process. The tension of final authority, between the Milwaukee County Executive and the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors remained unresolved, with Colon’s position being a potential proxy struggle again in two years.