The Johnson County commission took control of the county’s struggling mental health center in a series of votes last week, though it agreed to re-evaluate the new oversight structure by the end of next year.
Commissioner Steve Klika acknowledged continued objection to the action in some quarters, including among a minority faction of the county’s disbanded, nine-person mental health board. He said that sentiment was contrary to most of the feedback he had received.
“While the house is on fire,” he said before the votes, “we are taking too much time to get to the fire and put it out.”
Commissioner Ed Peterson said an action plan for next year addressed his concerns that the commission was stepping in without a game plan.
Klika and Commissioner Michael Ashcraft said they had both sought outside legal counsel, and that those opinions agreed with county legal staff that the commission’s actions were consistent with state law and the county charter.
Commissioner John Toplikar, who earlier in the week attended a meeting of the disgruntled mental health board members, cast the only dissenting vote on the first two actions. He then left the chamber on the final two motions, which passed 6-0.
In its actions, the commission terminated the appointments of the mental health board members, and then installed themselves as the new mental health board.
The commission also established a community mental health center advisory board, as required by state law.
Commissioners appointed a subcommittee to develop a proposed slate of advisory board members for forwarding to the full commission.
The commission agreed that they should form the advisory committee by Jan. 30, and that the panel’s first meeting should come no later than the end of March. Among the guidelines established for the committee was that it should consider service cuts and proper staffing levels for the center.
The commission’s disenchantment with the mental health center dates back to the summer, when then-Executive Director Maureen Womack and the board submitted a proposed 2014 budget that included a $6.1 million deficit.
In October, the mental health board placed Womack on administrative leave from her $146,000-a-year position for reasons that she, board members, and county officials have declined to discuss.
Womack later resigned, and the head of the county agency serving persons with developmental disabilities, Chad VonAhnen, has been devoting some of his time to running the mental health center. His temporary assignment is scheduled to end Jan. 19.
The commission earlier had delayed action on the mental health center until the entire board could be present.
Under its timetable for next year, the commission said the county manager should recommend an interim executive director before VonAhnen’s assignment ends.
By late June, according to the timetable, the advisory board should advance a plan for hiring a permanent executive director.
And by no later than the end of next year, the commissioners agreed they should “review and determine the need or desire for any modification to their oversight responsibilities” for the mental health center.
Chairman Ed Eilert said that review could result in the commission re-establishing the old structure of a separate mental health board filled largely by appointees from each commissioner.
Two days before the commission dissolved the mental health board, four of its members met at the time and date of the board’s regularly scheduled monthly meeting, though the chairman had canceled the official meeting.
Attending were Ben Hodge, Cindy Neighbor, Mary Uhl, and Stuart Conrad, an attorney and law partner of Commissioner Peterson. Also attending was county resident Ken Dunwoody, a frequent critic of local government.
Conrad said his interpretation of state law was that the commission could not switch back and forth between sitting as the mental health board and naming an appointed board. Participants also argued the county charter enshrined the governing board as the oversight body of the mental health center.
Hodge and Dunwoody also alleged Eilert violated the county charter by pressuring the mental health board to take action against Womack. Eilert said that charge was unfounded.
Some said the previous administration of the mental health center and previous commissions had brushed aside financial concerns raised by the board long before Womack started.
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