Milwaukee Municipal Court's termination of contract sounds "fishy," likely to interrupt services for many
By Alexandria Staubach & Margo Kirchner
Comments by Milwaukee Municipal Court representatives at a public hearing indicate a likely interruption of assistance for thousands of court defendants in need of social services.
As part of a Municipal Court Alternatives Program (MCAP), JusticePoint aids defendants who suffer from poverty, mental health issues, and substance abuse in satisfying Municipal Court obligations. The program helps those who cannot pay forfeitures find and complete community service. It connects them to myriad services like drug treatment or housing resources. JusticePoint staff have provided such services for four decades.
Milwaukee Municipal Court notified JusticePoint by letter dated May 15 that it was terminating JusticePoint's contract effective July 11. The letter said the cancelation was under a "convenience" provision of the contract.
In a crowded Common Council Judiciary & Legislation Committee meeting room on Monday, Court Administrator Sheldyn Himle and Assistant City Attorney Kathryn Block faced questions about the termination. Ald. Mark A. Borkowski, chair of the committee, set the matter of JusticePoint’s MCAP on the agenda following communications from a coalition of community organizations and individuals, including Wisconsin Justice Initiative, the National Lawyers Guild, and former Milwaukee Municipal Judge Jim Gramling, expressing concern about the contract cancelation.
Himle said at the meeting that the decision to terminate JusticePoint's contract was made by Municipal Judges Phil Chavez and Valarie Hill before Judge Molly Gena was elected in April.
Ald. Jonathan Brostoff, attending the meeting though not a member of the committee, said he found it troubling and “fishy” that the termination came up right before the new judge was elected.
Himle's statement that Chavez and Hill decided to terminate JusticePoint's contract before the April election appears to conflict with information in the termination letter, which referenced a May 5 meeting about the contract between court officials and JusticePoint and cited JusticePoint's failure to respond by May 11 with a proposal regarding unspecified concerns.
In a response letter dated May 16, JusticePoint disputed that it had been given a May 11 deadline for submitting a proposal or any warning that the result would be contract termination. JusticePoint asked for reconsideration of the decision as premature.
Gena took office on May 1 but was not part of a meeting with JusticePoint.
Block told committee members at the outset of the hearing that the Common Council has no authority to rescind the Court’s termination of the contract with JusticePoint. She said Chavez and Hill recommended termination of the JusticePoint contract, the termination letter came from the purchasing department, and the purchasing department had the authority to terminate the contract.
Himle indicated that JusticePoint will provide MCAP services through July 11, and the court “has every intention to continue its court alternatives program.”
The contract will go out for a “full RFP,” said Himle. An “RFP” or “request for proposal” is a process in which the city would entertain bids and proposals for the program.
Attendees at the hearing muttered that a month was insufficient time for an RFP and to get a new provider lined up.
Himle said the judges have a plan. In any interim period they may make referrals for community services directly to other agencies. She did not address how the Court will ensure that the people it refers actually contact service providers, as JusticePoint does.
Block added that in the short-term a "sole-source” contract may be appropriate with qualified vendors for some of the services while an RFP is in process.
Brostoff voiced skepticism that services would continue without interruption. He asked Himle directly whether the court had a sole-source provider lined up; she answered “no.”
Brostoff emphasized that the Common Council allocated funds for the program in its budget. He expressed serious concern over the apparent lack of a plan to prevent a disruption in services.
Gena spoke at the committee hearing and confirmed she played no part in the decision to terminate JusticePoint’s contract.
She said that in her time on the bench she has referred several defendants to JusticePoint for treatment or other services and that JusticePoint "does incredible work.”
Referring people at in-person hearings to services immediately following their court appearances is important, Gena said. JusticePoint is located near Municipal Court in the Police Administration Building.
Without the services JusticePoint offers, “these people probably really may not come back; we will lose them,” she said. She has found JusticePoint to be “vital” to what she does.
While the other judges may have a plan, she doesn’t. “I do not know what I am going to do without these services," she said. She indicated she did not have the time or staff to guide defendants through the services they need.
Chavez and Hill did not attend the committee meeting.
Committee members referenced bases for termination of the contract for cause, but Block clarified that the reason given in the termination letter was the "convenience" provision in the contract. She said the reasons for termination under that provision could be discussed in closed session.
Ald. Mark Chambers, Jr. said the termination was the result of “serious accusations” brought up by court officials against JusticePoint. But those accusations were not shared with the public.
Himle and Block alluded to wrongdoing on the part of JusticePoint that could result in litigation. The potential claims or parties for litigation went unspecified.
Borkowski cautioned that the committee would have to go into closed session to discuss specifics, but committee members did not want to do that.
Nick Sayner, co-founder and chief executive officer of JusticePoint, addressed the only allegation of possible wrongdoing of which he was aware. He said that between 2016 and 2018 JusticePoint and City representatives engaged in several planning meetings to decide how MCAP would interact with new legal defense services provided by the City through Legal Action of Wisconsin. Part of that planning included a process of JusticePoint providing citations, which are otherwise available through open records requests, directly to Legal Action.
Sayner indicated that in March the court raised concerns about JusticePoint providing citations directly to Legal Action attorneys, and JusticePoint “stopped that process immediately.”
“We wholeheartedly believed that we were told by the city to make those referrals” and that JusticePoint had permission to share the citations, said Sayner. The only thing JusticePoint is guilty of is confusion regarding its role, Sayner said.
JusticePoint was always willing to talk about the program design with the Municipal Court, Sayner said. He found it “shocking that it went from zero to 60 so quickly.”
Ed Gordon, co-founder and chief operations officer of JusticePoint, said “we’re a little frustrated that we’re not able to respond to what the City’s allegations are.” He reiterated that JusticePoint thought sharing citations with Legal Action was an approved process, especially as the attorneys would be able to get the citations anyway.
While neither Block, Himle, nor committee members confirmed that citation passing between JusticePoint and Legal Action was the serious accusation of wrongdoing, the topic came up repeatedly.
“There was no perception that it was inappropriate because the same citations have been received by open records requests for years,” said Susan Lund, an attorney from Legal Action.
Service providers, community advocates, and individuals who interact with JusticePoint told the committee of the importance of JusticePoint’s work and expressed worry over the sudden termination of the contract and a lapse in services.
Jeanne Geraci, executive director of the Benedict Center, which provides services and advocacy for women in the criminal justice system, remarked that the Benedict Center did not have the capacity to provide services directly to the municipal court.
In her organization’s experience with government contracts, if problems are uncovered through an audit or otherwise, “if something is not in compliance we generally have the opportunity to do a correction,” Geraci said. “We have never seen anything like what we are seeing happen to JusticePoint.” She encouraged the court to “take a step back” and offer JusticePoint a “transparent and just procedure” to avoid a disruption in critical services.
Erika Petty, executive director of LOTUS Legal Clinic, which provides legal services for survivors of sexual violence and human trafficking, said JusticePoint offers important social services for those in crisis and that for many individuals their contact with Municipal Court may be the only opportunity to seek those services.
Other speakers focused on the lack of public information about the termination. Sylvester Jackson of Believers for Change said that having two people make a decision that will affect thousands of others was wrong and that taxpayers deserve to know more. Rev. Joseph Ellwanger, from the Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH), expressed concern about how and why the termination is occurring and called for transparency and clarity. He asked the Common Council to make sure the decision doesn't occur in a closed room.
Emilio De Torre, executive director of the Milwaukee Turners, suggested that the committee talk with the judges or consider putting the MCAP on a separate budget line outside of the court budget.
While it was unclear at the end of the meeting what the committee would do, Borkowski said he would “seriously inquire into the matter" and consider addressing the issue again at the committee’s July 5 meeting.
However, multiple committee members and Block indicated that the Common Council has no power over the termination decision.
Because, as indicated by committee members and Block at Monday's meeting, termination of JusticePoint's contract appears within the control of Milwaukee Municipal Court, public concern about the termination should be directed to court officials. See https://city.milwaukee.gov/municourt.
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