05/26/04 — Agency directors shout in anger

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Agency directors shout in anger

By Matt Shaw
Published in News on May 26, 2004 2:05 PM

Eastpointe's board of directors argued bitterly Tuesday night for more than 30 minutes over a plan to preserve mental health employees' jobs.

The exchanges became personal, with Director Jack St. Clair accusing some directors of unethical behavior, before the board decided to close the meeting to its staff and the press.

Even with doors closed, people could be heard screaming at each other for another 10 minutes before things calmed down. It took another 20 minutes before they opened the meeting again.

Ultimately, the board is sticking with its plan to avoid layoffs.

If it can get state approval, Eastpointe will be moving some employees to a separate nonprofit organization that will be contracted to do some services that Eastpointe does now. The split is intended to protect the jobs of most of Eastpointe's 300-plus employees for at least the next three years.

But some directors are concerned that the plan will ultimately be unnecessary and expensive. They're also angry that the plan was approved at a special called meeting on May 9 that some board members thought was strictly informational.

Floyd McCullouch of Goldsboro and Wayne County Commissioner John Bell were among four directors who voted against the separation. Both said they're alarmed most by the timing of the decision.

But St. Clair argued that Eastpointe needs to meet state deadlines for showing it is privatizing services. He apologized that some people had felt rushed, but that did not explain the "unethical" behavior of some directors, he said.

When McCullouch asked what that meant, St. Clair referred to remarks that he said he heard McCullouch make after the May 9 meeting.

The conversation quickly became heated with board members shouting at each other. After a few minutes, Chairman Oscar Herring decided it was enough of a personnel matter to go into closed session.

The board emerged 30 minuets later. Herring announced that no decisions had been made.

The tensions that surfaced Tuesday were rooted in the ongoing reform of the N.C. mental health system.

In July 2001, the General Assembly ordered the number of local mental health centers, then around 40, to be cut in half over the next several years. In response, the Wayne County Mental Health Clinic merged last summer with Duplin-Sampson-Lenoir Mental Health Services to form Eastpointe, now responsible for mental health, developmental disability and substance abuse services in the four-county region.

The Legislature also called for the centers to contract with private individuals, companies and agencies to provide nearly all basic services. The privatization of these services is intended to lead to layoffs.

Since last fall, the Eastpointe board has been talking about using a nonprofit organization to protect their employees. Upper Cape Fear Human Services Inc. would be a separate agency, with its own board and director, that would hire a portion of the Eastpointe staff. It would then have a contract to provide services that Eastpointe has been ordered to give up.

The split is intended both to protect jobs and to offer the best services possible, St. Clair said. "We're trying to be in the best position for change."

Other centers have begun to layoff employees, only to find that they don't have resources to serve clients, he said. The state had anticipated that many displaced workers would go into private practice, but many are relocating to urban areas or taking jobs outside their professions.

By giving the Eastpointe employees a place to go, the board would keep its people working and assure the quality of services given the public, he said.

But some board members question whether the split is even needed.

McCullouch and Rita Hodges both said they believe the state is softening its stance on how fast the centers need to turn services over to the private sector. The N.C. Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services recently got a new director, Mike Moseley, who is bringing his own interpretations to the state reforms.

Also, this fall's elections will affect the Legislature and perhaps other state offices, which might change the timetable for the reforms, they said.