Mayor Barrett Appoints Karen Dettmer as the Interim Commissioner of the Department of Public Works

December 20, 2021

Karen Dettmer

MILWAUKEE—Mayor Tom Barrett announced today the appointment of Karen Dettmer to serve as the Interim Commissioner of the Department of Public Works. The appointment was made in consultation with incoming Mayor Cavalier Johnson.

Dettmer will succeed current Commissioner Jeff Polenske effective December 17 following his retirement from the department after nearly 31 years of service. She brings nearly 15 years of collective experience at the City in increasing roles of responsibility at the Department of Public Works, Department of City Development and Milwaukee Water Works. Prior to her public service, Dettmer worked in the private sector as an engineering consultant.

“In every job she has held in city government, Karen has exceeded expectations by demonstrating leadership and accomplishments,” Mayor Tom Barrett said. “This is a well-earned appointment. Karen is ideally positioned to direct the Department of Public Works into the future.”

In her role as Superintendent of Milwaukee Water Works since February 2019, Dettmer oversees all operations of the state’s largest public utility and the work of over 350 professionals in its Business, Distribution, Engineering, Plants, Technology and Water Quality sections.

Under Dettmer’s leadership, Milwaukee Water Works earned the first ever award from the Wisconsin Policy Forum’s 2021 Salute to Local Government Awards in the category of Effort to Advance Racial Equity for the department’s partnership with the US Water Alliance to create a more equitable, inclusive and diverse water workforce. In 2019, Dettmer was also honored with Milwaukee Pride’s Ally Award for her advocacy of the installment of the Rainbow Crosswalks Initiative, the city’s first permanent, visible monument for LGBTQ+ people.

She previously served as Public Works Coordination Manager where Dettmer oversaw public works permitting and managed public works aspects of special projects such as the Lakefront Gateway, Fiserv Forum, Deer District, Beerline Trail and Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s Bradley Symphony Center.

Dettmer received a Bachelor of Science degree in Architectural Engineering and Master of Science degree in Environmental Engineering from the Milwaukee School of Engineering. A licensed Professional Engineer in the State of Wisconsin, Dettmer serves on the American Water Works Association’s Water Utility Council, which oversees the Association's government affairs program. She also serves on the Board of Directors for The Water Council and Menomonee Valley Partners.

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