Health director lost 2 jobs

July 06, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

The new head of the Washington County Mental Health Authority was forced out of two similar jobs in Ohio and Virginia in the last four years.

The authority's board members did not learn the circumstances surrounding his Ohio job until after they hired him.

But the president of the local agency's board of directors said he has confidence in Phillip E. Dukes, 51, who was hired in March as executive director of the authority that oversees about 30 mental health agencies.

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Before taking the $75,000-per-year post in Hagerstown, Dukes was fired from a job in Ohio in 1994 and failed to have his contract renewed by the Prince William County, (Va.) Community Services Board in February.

Prince William County Attorney Sharon Pandak would not say why the contract was not renewed, but an independent audit of the agency harshly criticized his performance, pointing to poor communication, low morale and staff shortages.


In April 1994, Dukes was fired as director of the Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Community Mental Health Board amid complaints about management.

Dukes, who is black, filed a complaint with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission in June 1994, and a lawsuit in July 1996, alleging the board of trustees was racially biased.

U.S. District Judge Kathleen M. O'Malley, however, ruled in favor of the mental health board this May in the lawsuit.

Dukes said the civil rights complaint is pending.

The head of the Washington County agency, the Rev. Andrew Cooney, said a Hagerstown firm hired to screen applicants assured the board that Dukes had not done anything illegal or improper.

Cooney said LJ Parrish & Associates told the local search committee that Dukes' contract was not renewed in Prince William County, but that the firm explained the situation to the committee's satisfaction.

The search committee was not told about the Ohio action, according to Cooney, who said he asked Dukes about it after he was hired this year and received a satisfactory explanation.

Laura J. Parrish, who screened the applicants, said she talked to numerous people in Ohio and determined that Dukes was not fired for cause.

She said she did not tell the search committee because she believed it wasn't relevant.

"The people that we talked to said he was an excellent manager," she said. "There are some people who do not like him because he has come in and made people accountable."

Past questions

Dukes started his Hagerstown job March 25.

Questions about his previous employment surfaced on April 12 when The Washington Post published an article that was critical of Dukes.

Dukes said in an interview last week that he has answered all questions from employees and the authority's board of directors to prove that charges against him are groundless.

In Prince William County, an audit called the agency Dukes headed "dysfunctional."

The report said the agency largely failed to implement previous audit recommendations and that problems worsened under Dukes.

Dukes said he ran into a wall of resistance from employees when he tried to address the problems.

He said the board of directors started a large reorganization of the agency about a year before he was hired and never gave him the support he needed to do his job.

For example, he said, staff positions were left vacant to pay off the agency's debts.

By the time the board voted not to renew his contract, Dukes said, the disenchantment was mutual.

"I was tired of the negative publicity associated with the reorganization," he said. "I was tired of getting kicked around and made to be the fall guy."

In Ohio, the Cuyahoga County Community Mental Health Board voted to fire Dukes in April 1994.

Thomas D. Corrigan, who was vice president of the board until about four months before Dukes was let go, said Dukes came aboard during a difficult period of transition in the way the state funded the agency and new challenges presented by managed care.

"He was held to a very high standard in a very tough environment and he didn't meet it," he said.

In his civil rights complaint against the Cuyahoga County mental health board, Dukes claimed a "racially hostile work environment" undermined his attempts to reform the agency.

In the lawsuit, Dukes claimed the agency's board members objected to his decision to fire a white employee and eliminate the job of board legal counsel, which was held by a white man.

The suit also contended that he received obscene phone calls regarding his interracial marriage and that board members did nothing to address the situation when he brought it to their attention.

Starting anew

In the Washington County Mental Health Authority, Dukes inherits an agency with its own problems.

A state audit in last October sharply criticized the authority's accounting and business practices from 1992 to 1995.

Leon Bayless, the agency's executive director, was dismissed from his job Sept. 12, but authority board members said the dismissal was unrelated to the audit.

The audit said the authority failed to comply with state and federal reporting requirements, failed to meet reporting deadlines, and "materially misstated" financial reports.

The Mental Health Authority is a quasi-governmental nonprofit agency with a budget of about $9 million in state and federal funds.

The agency has 18 employees, but only eight at its 322 E. Antietam St. office. The rest provide direct services, which the authority is phasing out.

Dukes said he is eager to leave behind the old questions that have followed him and concentrate on his job.

Corrigan, the former Cuyahoga County mental health board member, said Dukes' failure was not as bad as news reports suggested. He said he has a lot of skills to offer.

"Should Hagerstown give Dr. Dukes a chance? I'd say 'yes,'" he said.

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