TRAVERSE CITY – The board of directors of the Northern Lakes Community Mental Health Authority is finalizing a month-long search for a new leader, just as some in the community – including former employees and elected officials – say the organization is in turmoil.
A dysfunctional ‘culture of fear’ has hampered the region’s largest mental health service provider, some former employees say, saying these internal conflicts are at least partially responsible for the more than 60 positions available on the website. ‘organization.
“It’s supposed to be a place where you’re safe, and you go out to people to feel safe and to be treated kindly, and it isn’t,” said Stephanie Annis, who previously worked at the organization as case manager, therapist. and a social worker.
Annis was fired on October 1 for what records show the NLCMHA was listed as a billing issue, but Annis says it was in retaliation for her support of another dismissed employee.
“As soon as Karl got out, the culture of fear amplified,” Annis said.
CEO Karl Kovacs retired at the end of July after leading the organization since 2015, according to board records.
Joanie Blamer, a staff member of the organization’s leadership team, has been promoted to interim CEO by the NLCMHA board and is one of two finalists for the permanent position, members of the board at a board meeting on December 16.
The other finalist is David Pankotai, CEO of Macomb County Community Mental Health and past president of the State Section of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.
Final talks are scheduled for Jan. 10, and officials and community members say the new CEO of the $ 73 million organization will be tasked with repairing his reputation.
“I hope whoever accepts the position will begin to re-establish relationships with the entities with which Northern Lakes partners and also change the public’s perception of the organization,” said County Commissioner Penny Morris, who serves liaison with the board of directors of the NLCMHA.
One of those partners was the Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Office.
But after months of negotiations, a draft contract between GTCSO and NLCMHA to provide additional mental health services to those incarcerated in the county jail ended in stalemate.
Sheriff Tom Bensley and Prison Administrator Chris Barsheff’s captain made public comments at the December 16 board meeting, saying the organization appeared unwilling to tailor services to meet the needs of the prison.
Bensley said the experience of trying to negotiate with the organization was frustrating, and the NLCMHA refused to consider suggested programs for the prison that would meet correctional rules and standards.
“We, and many members of the community, have lost faith in the Northern Lakes Community Mental Health and current leadership,” Bensley said, in a Dec. 9 letter to Mary Marois, a member of the Northern Lakes Board of Directors. NLCMHA and chair of the CEO search committee.
“I think it’s time to get rid of the same old, same old and look outside the organization for someone who will bring collaboration and cooperation with local organizations,” Bensley said.
The sheriff told council he would be ready to discuss the contents of his letter and invited council members to contact him to do so.
None had done so on Thursday, he said. During the board meeting, President Randy Kamp told public commentators that board policy is to listen but not to respond during the meeting.
Marois addressed a reporter from Record-Eagle’s questions to Kamp and neither Blamer nor Kamp responded to requests for comment on the sheriff’s letter and other organizational challenges on Friday.
Deb Lavender, NLCMHA administrative staff, confirmed that the questions had been passed on to all board members.
Family members of those who receive or have received services from the organization have also started to speak out about how they feel best for the future of the NLCMH.
For example, Kate Dahlstrom, whose adult son was previously held in prison and received services from the NLCMHA, said she too supports a change in leadership.
The interim CEO has valuable institutional knowledge for the organization, Dahlstrom said, although new ideas are needed.
“Under current leadership, there has been a lack of proactive and forward-thinking initiatives, especially for the folks at SMI / SED,” Dahlstrom said in a letter to board members.
The abbreviation “SMI / SED” refers to people diagnosed with severe mental illness and severe emotional disorders. Another abbreviation, IDD, refers to people diagnosed with an intellectual and developmental disability.
Dahlstrom said she believes the NLCMHA should prioritize services for people with severe and moderate mental illness as well as people with developmental disabilities – not over each other.
“If you are committed to improving SMI / SED services, please make the necessary changes and decisions,” Dahlstrom said in his letter to the board. “Otherwise, I would recommend that Grand Traverse County leave the NLCMH.”
Under a 2003 agreement between the counties of Crawford, Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Missaukee, Roscommon and Wexford, the NLCMHA is committed to providing “a full range” of mental health services to residents, in return for annual payments. per county resident.
The six counties have a current population of over 200,000 and the 68-page agreement also specifically mentions services for incarcerated persons.
It states that the NLCMHA will provide mental health services to county correctional facilities at no additional cost, as needed – a repeated sticking point between the organization and Grand Traverse County.
County commission chairman Rob Hentschel, who previously served on the NLCMHA board, said he has long believed the wording puts the NLCMHA in violation of the agreement.
Still, there are no imminent plans for the county to leave the NLCMHA, he said.
“Basically, the pain of staying the same was less than the pain of changing,” Hentschel said. “It is a monumental task to create a new CMH. Could the county be better served by partnering with Leelanau for a smaller CMH? This has been discussed.
Hentschel also said he believed the NLCMHA would be best served by bringing in someone from outside its ranks to serve as the new CEO, thus avoiding any perception of the organization as one of the decision-making. “Same old, same old”.
Others within the organization and who work in healthcare say the job should be Blamer’s job.
Letters of support for Blamer were sent to the board by Stacey Kaminsky, NLCMHA operations manager for crisis services; Deb Freed, Executive Director of Freed Communications and Terri Lacroix-Kelty, Director of Behavioral Health at Munson Medical Center.
They referred to Blamer’s work ethic, experience and knowledge of Michigan’s CMH system.
“Joanie has exceptional experience and a clear understanding of the CMHSP and the Michigan State Behavioral Health System,” Lacroix-Kelty said in her November 5 letter. “She has both the administrative and clinical knowledge that is an asset to the role of CEO. “
NLCMHA board members will conduct the final interviews with Blamer and Pankotai at a special board meeting on January 10, and a decision is expected shortly thereafter, according to board records. administration.
Annis, now a social worker at a nursing home in the area, said she hopes the board will consider how the new CEO addresses the “toxic” work culture she and others have witnessed.
Annis has filed complaints with the human resources department of the NLCMHA and the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, regarding her dismissal, according to the records.
She said supervisors falsely accused her of failing to counsel residents of adult foster homes assigned to her, while she contends the pandemic has required as many as 200 of those sessions via telehealth, what she did.
Former COO Rob Ordiway, whose records show he applied for the CEO job but was not a finalist, also filed an EEOC complaint against NLCMHA, according to the records.
Ordiway declined to comment, but records have provided Record-Eagle shows he was fired on or around July 28, following interviews by Grand Rapids attorney Keith Brodie with several colleagues Ordiway, including Annis.
Brodie has confirmed that he represents the NLCMHA, although he cited solicitor-client privilege when asked if he was also hired as a private investigator to investigate personal life Ordiway, as set out in Ordiway’s EEOC complaint.
“We were invited to a meeting to supposedly talk about how we were doing with COVID,” said Annis, of herself and several colleagues. “Then when we got there we were told the man was a private investigator, hired by the interim CEO, to investigate Rob about a possible affair with another staff member. “
Annis identified Brodie as the man who conducted the interviews.
Christine Saah Nazer, spokesperson for the EEOC, declined to comment on the complaints, citing confidentiality.
Blamer and Marois also declined to comment on specific questions from a journalist regarding the complaints.
Other current and former employees who spoke to Record-Eagle but declined to be named in the case due to fears of retaliation, said if they were substantiated, the EEOC’s complaints could have an impact on federal funding for the NLCMHA.
Records show that about 77 percent of NLCMHA’s funding, or $ 57 million in 2020, comes from Medicaid, much of which is administered by the northern Michigan regional entity.
Saah Nazer of the EEOC referred a reporter’s questions to Medicaid administration policy and Michigan state contract funding could be jeopardized by such complaints.
Terry Pechacek, who previously worked at the NLCMHA as a crisis team supervisor, said she believed it was one of the most important moments in the organization’s 18-year history .
“Think about what you look for in a leader of this organization,” Pechacek said, when asked for his advice for the board.
“Meeting after meeting is not productive,” Pechacek said. “Listen to the people who have an interest in this organization. Do you have the results you are looking for? If not, it might be time for a change.
Those interested in sharing their opinion with the board regarding the CEO search or other matters can contact the board through their public email address, [email protected]