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Department merger sparks controversy

Five people sit or stand between the flag of California and the United States flag, beneath a seal for the County of Mendocino.
County of Mendocino website.
Mendocino County Board of Supervisors.

A narrow majority of county supervisors last week asked for details before they agreed to formally combine a director position for two key departments: Public Health and Behavioral Health and Recovery Services. Dr. Jenine Miller, who is currently the head of Behavioral Health and Recovery Services, would be in charge of the newly configured entity, called Health Services.

A letter claiming to demonstrate employee support for the matter led to a union request for an investigation.

Three of the five supervisors voted down the request, saying they needed a more detailed plan. CEO Darcie Antle said the information had been provided to the board in closed session and during individual conversations, months ago. She also said the board approved the merger of the departments in open session in December.

Supervisor Maureen Mulheren contended that the matter has long been in the making, and that combining the positions would save the county roughly $200,000. She also asserted that, “We have heard several items (about) combining the Public Health Department and the Behavioral Health Department. I do believe that that department will be known as Health Services, and that they are working through their transition and really coming up with a way to articulate the new structure. And we've had several items regarding some of the changes related to consolidation of administration.”

Supervisor John Haschak joined Mulheren in her vote to approve creating the position. But Supervisor Ted Williams held out for a more fully fleshed-out plan, saying, “My impression was, it was temporary. A plan would be coming. There was a concept of merging needs. But I haven't ever seen a presentation of such a plan. What does it look like? How do those org charts co-exist? And I haven't seen a 360 review. So a lot of the steps that have been talked about over the past year or so, I haven't seen carried to completion. I'd like to see that full plan with the 360 review and then make a decision.”

He invoked the sudden relocation of the Veterans Services Office from a house on Observatory Avenue in Ukiah to the Public Health building, which was deeply unpopular among veterans and their supporters. “That was bad process,” he opined, acknowledging that the move was not made under the direction of Dr. Miller. “We recognized it after the fact. That never should have happened, right? I don't want another one of those, so I'm looking at this, where we're so far along, yet we haven't had a presentation about where it is and where it's going. This board is not in the driver's seat on what’s happening with this merger.”

Deputy CEO Cherie Johnson said the item is just a matter of correcting last year’s resolution. But Williams was not the only one to say he needed to see a plan. Supervisor Glenn McGourty also recalled that the information was incomplete, saying he, too, was under the impression that the arrangement was temporary, and the timeline had not been clearly stated. “I'm also feeling like before we make this permanent, we might want to do some evaluation,” he offered; “since there's been a lot of turnover, especially in the Public Health Department, and I’d like to know a little bit more about that. So I'm just not comfortable moving forward.”

In an unusual development, the item was reopened at the end of the meeting so that senior staff from the department could present a letter with three pages of employee signatures, extolling Dr. Miller’s leadership and dedication to the job.

According to Patrick Hickey, the union representative for SEIU 1021, some workers complained that “managers and supervisors were cornering staff…and pressuring them to sign” the letter. In his own letter to the board and Executive Office, he stated that, “In some instances, the employees were not even shown or allowed to read the letter they were signing.” He requested an investigation into the matter, calling it “highly inappropriate” and stating that, “No employee should be forced to sign what amounts to a ‘loyalty’ oath in front of the people who have power over their livelihood and career.”

Angle Slater, a nurse manager with Public Health, introduced the letter to the board. She said she had not been prepared to speak about the matter earlier in the day because, “We thought this was a slam dunk.” She averred that Dr. Miller has been running both departments for almost a year without extra pay; that “she took a mess and she is rebuilding. And I am very proud of this progress. And from what I can see today, we have stopped all progress. So from the time that we heard that it was voted down to now, we have gathered signatures from every single person in the building. Forty-nine employees in the building today signed a letter stating they want this reversed.”

May Pang, a staff services manager, read the letter, which was ostensibly endorsed by everyone who was at work in the building at the time that it was circulated during business hours.

May 7th, 2024 

Board of Supervisors 

Mendocino County 

501 Low Gap Road, Room 1010 

Ukiah, CA 95482 

Dear Members of the Board of Supervisors, 

We, the dedicated employees of the Public Health and Behavioral Health departments, are writing to express our concerns regarding the recent decision to decline the creation of a Health Services Director position to oversee our departments. While we understand the complexities involved in administrative decisions, we are deeply disappointed and feel compelled to share our perspectives on this matter. Jenine Miller, who has admirably taken on the role of overseeing both departments, has been instrumental in fostering collaboration and unity among us. Her leadership has brought a renewed sense of purpose and teamwork, significantly enhancing our effectiveness in serving the community. We are deeply worried that if we do not create a fair position for her that encompasses all the work she is doing to oversee two departments, another county or organization will. Jenine has a rare level of talent even for those in the highest levels of leadership, and losing someone of this distinction would be a significant blow to our departments and to the community we serve. We believe that recognizing Jenine's expanded responsibilities with the creation of a Health Services Director position is essential. Not only would this acknowledge her hard work and dedication, but it would also ensure the continued success of our departments under her remarkable leadership. Investing in effective leadership is crucial for the well-being of our community, and retaining someone of Jenine's caliber should be a priority. Approving reimbursement for a job she was directed to take months ago should have been a matter of routine. We would have been present in public comment, had we any realization that such a formality required advocacy. Thank you for considering our perspective on this matter. We urge you to carefully weigh the implications of your decision and take action that is in the best interest of Mendocino County and its residents. 

Sincerely, Public Health and Behavioral Health Staff 

Signatures in addendum attached 

(KZYX has chosen not to share the employee signatures, in light of concerns that some staff may have been pressured by management to add their names to a public policy statement.)

The board intends to hear details about plans for the merger at a future meeting.

Local News
Sarah Reith came to Mendocino County in 2008 and worked as a reporter and freelancer, joining KZYX as a community news reporter in 2017. She became the KZYX News Director in March, 2023.