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Dettmer named interim DPW commissioner

Karen Dettmer

Milwaukee Water Works Superintendent Karen Dettmer has taken over as interim commissioner of the city’s Department of Public Works.

Mayor Tom Barrett named Dettmer to succeed outgoing DPW head Jeff Polenske, who announced in November he would retire after 31 years with the city. Barrett picked Dettmer to lead DPW after consulting incoming interim Mayor Cavalier Johnson. Dettmer took over on Friday.

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

Dettmer has worked in a variety of roles at the city in the past 15 years, including in Milwaukee’s Department of Public Works, Department of City Development and Milwaukee Water Works. She has led the Water Works since February 2019, overseeing its staff of 350.

As the public works coordination manager for DPW, Dettmer previously oversaw public works permitting and managed the 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.

She holds a bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering and a master’s degree in environmental engineering from the Milwaukee School of Engineering.

Under Dettmer’s leadership, the Wisconsin Policy Forum awarded the Water Works a 2021 Salute to Local Government Award for the department’s work with the US Water Alliance to have a more inclusive and diverse 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.

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