CADILLAC — What to do with the top leadership spot in the region’s largest mental health organization continues to divide opinion.
Northern Lakes Community Health Authority board members discussed overturning an earlier decision to offer the organization’s top job to interim CEO Joanie Blamer, but did not taken no action after two votes ended in a 6-6 tie.
On March 17, Randy Kamp, chairman of the board, implored fellow board members to vote yes on a motion to rescind, after suggesting that the decision to offer Blamer the job was likely a reaction to a flawed research process rather than a “pragmatic rationale”.
The Feb. 17 vote in favor of Blamer was backed by six of the 16 board members the organization lists on its website and Kamp said those who voted in favor knew in advance that several of their colleagues would be absent.
Some mental health advocates associated with nonprofits in the region have accused the board of behind-the-scenes negotiations, though board members Barb Selesky and Ben Townsend — two of the six who voted to offer the position at Blamer – denied it.
“One, I’m not smart enough to collude with you guys,” Selesky said. “I would say my heart won’t be broken if you don’t offer Joanie the job, but my trust in your judgment just went to hell.”
Blamer was questioned last year by board members about human resources issues, including what some current and former employees described as a ‘culture of fear’ and an internal privacy investigation. of two employees who later filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. .
One of those complaints was later dismissed, records show.
City Solicitor Haider Kazim reviewed the council’s previous votes and issued an opinion that everything was in order, Kamp said, adding that he still felt compelled to issue a warning.
“When things like this happen, don’t be surprised when you get accusations like this,” Kamp said. “And if it actually happened and it can’t be proven, look, you’re responsible to yourself at the end of the day. The way you function when no one is watching defines you as an individual.
Michigan’s Open Meetings Act states that decisions of a public body must be rendered in public.
Telephone conversations or sub-quorum meetings between members are likely to make decisions “around the horn,” which violates the OMA, a 2021 manual published by Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office.
The board remained split last week and with 12 members present at the regular meeting, six voted against rescinding the job offer, six voted for and when Kamp called for a re-vote, the second result was the same.
“At the next meeting, we’ll talk about it again,” Kamp said. “It’s obvious to the president that this will go on and on and on and on and on.”
The standoff is the latest in a series of controversial actions by Northern Lakes board members, who last year began searching for a new CEO, following the retirement of Karl Kovacs, who served this position since 2015.
By September, members of an internal ad hoc search committee began advertising the position and selecting applicants, and by December had narrowed the field to two finalists, Blamer and Dave Pankotai, head of a northern CMH of State.
It was at this point, however, that several threads began to unravel.
The committee received far fewer applicants than expected; Pankotai’s initial job application was lost and his offer letter delayed; then it was revealed that Pankotai’s salary requirements were higher than the position actually being paid – something Kamp said the search committee members were unaware of when they recommended the offer.
Meanwhile, an internal campaign, led by anonymous Northern Lakes employees who supported Blamer and urged others to do the same, thwarted human resources policies and led some employees to say they felt unduly under pressure.
Blamer confirmed that the effort caught the attention of Chief Compliance Officer Kari Barker, who emailed Blamer stating that employees should refrain from approaching others to sign such petitions.
Leaders of a local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness said in a letter to the board that they find the petition effort problematic.
“(A) asking staff to publicly vouch for their current supervisor is highly questionable,” states a letter from NAMI, signed by Judy Barrett, Cheryl Solowiej, Denise Samuels, Paula McLain and Kate Dahlstrom.
“This process can only put undue pressure on employees, whose promotions or job status may be affected by what they say or don’t say.”
Blamer previously served as interim CEO while Kovacs was on health leave, served in lengthy public interviews with the search committee and the entire board, and continues to serve in a sort of limbo of the CEO.
Blamer told the Record-Eagle that she had no prior knowledge of the petition and only learned about it when she received an email from Barker.
Blamer also made a statement to the board last Thursday.
“I didn’t ask them to do it, it wouldn’t be appropriate,” Blamer said. “I didn’t expect them to do this. I can’t stop them from doing this. I just want this council to know there’s no coercion.
Blamer said she is focused on providing behavioral health care to those the organization serves and expanding crisis services using funds from state grants and federal appropriations.
In October, Northern Lakes leaders learned that a hoped-for $5 million federal grant that would have funded a new crisis center had not been granted.
Kamp acknowledged NAMI’s letter and other public concerns on Thursday, calling most of them simply “twitter” – hockey slang for slurs designed to annoy and distract an opponent but are irrelevant to the main action. Game.
However, new to the organization’s board agenda is a “written public comment/board discussion” item, allowing board members, if they wish, to speak publicly about communications. writings they received.
Northern Lakes, established in 2003, serves residents of six counties – Crawford, Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Missaukee, Roscommon and Wexford – and has an annual budget of $83 million, much of which comes in the form of reimbursements from state and federal coffers.
Board members have traditionally listened to public comments, but have not responded citing privacy concerns of those receiving services.
The pandemic has exposed gaps in mental health services at a time when they are needed most, mental health advocates say, and in recent weeks the council has been forced not to remain silent but rather to respond to questions from the public about funding and services.
The organization’s leaders have also come under scrutiny over transparency issues, after council minutes were removed from the organization’s website and members’ individual email addresses were removed. have been replaced with a single “contact the board” email address that is forwarded to the board through Northern Lakes staff. .
Board meetings are open to the public and the agendas contain instructions for calling the meeting for those who cannot attend in person or who have chosen not to, although no public link to the video stream is published.
The new agenda item of responding to written comments caused some confusion as to what questions from the public would be addressed.
“I think it may put people off coming to make that comment in person if they know they won’t have the answer but they will have the answer in writing,” said Tracy Andrews, director of Northern Lakes Integrated. and Managed. health services.
Kamp agreed the policy needed clarification, which he said the board would do at its April 21 meeting.
“We need to continue to clarify procedures and policies so we can continue to operate and build trust in the community for what we are doing to reduce tweets,” Kamp said.
A voice vote to file a contract motion with Okemos-based Hiring Solutions LLC to restart the CEO selection process passed unanimously.