Seven months ago, John Morrissey found himself working for the city of Kenosha as part-time director for its newly created inspections department.
Morrissey, 57, had come out of a three-year retirement following 28 years in law enforcement, the last nine of those as chief of police. Last month, the City Council approved his appointment to lead, not just one department, but all the departments housed at City Hall. He officially took over as city administrator on June 22, replacing Randy Hernandez, who left to join his son in a new business venture after just a year in the position.
“With Randy’s unexpected announcement, the mayor had come down and asked if I would be interested,” said Morrissey, who has immersed himself in the day-to-day functions of the city,” he said. “As I explained to the mayor for this position, as long as he and the council feel that I can add value, that my services are what they’re looking for, I’d be happy to serve. The only other condition would be my health, which is fine currently.”
Morrissey said he believes he can work at least another 10 years.
“I’m in the position that I feel and they feel I could add value to this position, it’s something I certainly feel and can handle and look forward to doing again back in city government. It is a whole different thing when you’re looking at 19 departments versus one,” Morrissey said.
“It’s a whole different outlook. … Now you’re looking at everything.”
His main duty as city administrator, he said, is to help free up time for Mayor John Antaramian to promote the city for development.
“One of the reasons the mayor asked me, he wants to get away from the daily operations of the city,” Morrissey said. “ He wants to go back to the planning and the projects and working specifically the downtown project and the Chrysler plan and as, you know, we get further west to the interstate (the former Dairyland property). That’s what he wants to start focusing on.
“He can talk to the people for the grants that we need, dealing with different corporations on the Chrysler site and the innovation center he wants to do there. There’s a lot of work that goes into that,” he said.
Morrissey said among the first orders of business is hiring a director of development following longtime director Jeff LaBahn’s retirement July 1. A nationwide search is currently under way, he said. In the interim, deputy director Rich Schroeder is filling in.
“It’s one of the highest priorities here we need to make sure (is hired) because there’s so much going on with development here in the city,” Morrissey said. “You can start at the lakefront and go west to the interstate and there’s something being planned, developed — whether they’re brand new like the Chrysler site or downtown, or Kwik Trip building a new building at 80th and 39th. So that position is integral. That, to me, is extremely important.”
City Clerk Debbie Salas has also retired, he said, with deputy clerk Karen Argust filling in. A replacement is also being sought.
He said he is anticipating at least one or two more retirements before the end of the year, but they have yet to file the paperwork.
“That’s just the department head level,” he said.
Morrissey said the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the need for cohesiveness among department leadership and throughout the city’s work culture.
On July 7, staff who normally work in the city’s Municipal Building and had been working at home due to the pandemic, were brought back full time in house. Morrissey said that he had planned for a “soft” re-opening the early part of July, with staff in attendance at city committee meetings, and a full opening including the public July 20; however, that has now been delayed to July 27.
Mayor John Antaramian, who has been in close communication with the county’s division of health, has reported an upturn in the number of COVID-19 cases, Morrissey said. In fact, four employees have been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus, including two in the same department. The family of an employee who has been hospitalized was quarantined because members have been infected, as well. The employee did not contract the coronavirus while on the job.
“We just decided we’ve just got to be safe,” he said. “Four employees out of the 700 may not seem like a lot, but it’s much bigger than just four employees.
“We just have to really pay attention to where these numbers are going. I don’t think that putting off committee meetings and council meetings for another couple weeks, a month, whatever it takes … we just need to make sure the employees’ safety and then the general public coming into this building is taken care of,” he said.
Employees at City Hall, for example, are now required to wear masks in common areas and in-person meetings. City crews have been installing Plexiglas partitions at the entry areas of offices.
“The majority of us have some kind of barrier. The Council Chambers is being re-fitted so that each (council member), I’ll call it a cubicle, so that each councilperson will have an individual cubicle,” he said.
In-person council meetings, which were originally scheduled to restart July 20 have been “put off until further notice,” Morrissey said. The council, its committees and commissions, along with other panels that advise them continue to meet via Zoom for phone-in teleconferences.
Changes when the public returns
When the public returns, they’ll see markings on the floor, at least six feet apart, to maintain physical/social distancing.
“As you probably know, there are two spectrums — from way right to way left. I’m not playing any politics. I couldn’t care less. We’re looking at it as a safety issue,” he said. “That stuff is just out. Our decisions are made strictly on what we can get through the best information to keep our employees safe. But along with that, we need to keep the public safe.”
Throughout the building will be signs that indicate employees’ requirement to wear masks, and the public to “please wear a mask to protect our employees,” he said.
“We can’t require it (with the public). We are going to very strongly request that they do,” he said.
Before the Municipal Building re-opened for staff, the city required testing for all its employees regardless of whether they work in the building or in the field, Morrissey said. City employees received testing through National Guard units that were performed June 23-24, if they had not already sought testing previously. Police and fire personnel were excluded because they had already followed and were tested with specific protocols in place as first responders
Morrissey said he’s been tested twice, with negative results both times. Other employees have been tested as many as three to four times.
“Bringing employees back, getting back to some sense of normalcy, right now, is what we need,” he said.
Working among colleagues again, he said, makes it easier for him to follow up with department heads.
“I think it’s much easier, but daily, I’m talking with (human resources), the health department to make sure we are doing what we can,” he said. “If we saw a huge spike (in cases) in this building, I wouldn’t hesitate to close it back down. I know that some citizens don’t like that. I personally have not had a lot of calls saying, `You need to open this building.’”
Morrissey’s brief tenure as administrator isn’t just focused on the pandemic.
He’s coordinating with the city’s waste management department to insure that the new automated system for recycling and trash pickup goes smoothly as most residents receive their bins next month. Inspections, the department he previously headed, has fielded more complaints for unkempt properties than a year ago even as residents have remained at home during the pandemic.
He said that department has responded to more than 400 complaints in the first 6 months about uncut lawns — the office typically averages about 500 calls in a year. Recently, the council approved a noxious weed ordinance lowering the grass and weed height to 8 inches. Previously, growth was restricted to a foot for weeds.
If there were no pandemic, he said, inspections would be fast-tracking an initiative to crack down on nuisance houses.
Morrissey said his management style is one of professionalism and relying on the city’s department heads for their expertise, a protocol he followed when he was police chief.
“I’m hoping to work with the council to get them the information that they need. I hate hearing, `We didn’t get this information until the last minute,’ or, ‘It would’ve been nice to know this,’” he said. “It’s certainly interesting times.”