OLATHE – Johnson County commissioners on Thursday delayed for one week action on a resolution that would appoint them as the oversight body for the county’s mental health center.
Over the opposition of Chairman Ed Eilert and Commissioner Steve Klika, the commission voted 4-2 to move the matter to its Dec. 19 meeting so that all seven commissioners could weigh in. Commissioner Jim Allen was out of the county Thursday.
Staff members said they expected all seven commissioners would be present next week.
Meanwhile, some commissioners continued to express reservations about the proposed action, which would dissolve the current mental health center board and have the county commission sit in its stead.
The concerns centered on whether the proposed move would comply with the county charter and also whether having the commission intervene would solve the center’s problems.
The board vote came in the wake of an outside review of the center, which concluded that the volunteer board overseeing the organization had created “an unhealthy, unproductive atmosphere through a combination of perceived inaction and inappropriate actions.”
The leader of the review team, Ron Denney, said that, in large measure, staff had lost faith in the board for what they believed to be a bad move in hiring Executive Director Maureen Womack, who came on about two years ago.
He said Womack seemed to be implementing needed reforms within the organization, but that she had failed to adequately explain the moves to the staff. The review cited “multiple reports” from staff that Womack did not listen to them.
In October, the mental health board placed Womack on paid leave from her $146,000-a-year position. She has since resigned.
Board members and county officials have declined to detail the reasons for Womack’s departure, and she also has declined to comment.
Problems at the center became public in the summer as the commission was preparing the county budget for 2014.
Center officials submitted a budget that included a $6.1 million deficit along with three scenarios to close the gap, including one that would’ve required no additional financial support from the county, in part by wiping 78 unfilled center positions off the books.
Center leaders also told the commissioners that the organization’s financial reserves were dwindling and that the center would likely need a cash infusion from the county to stay afloat through the end of this year.
During the budget discussions, one issue that was raised was that center and county budget officials previously had overestimated the amount of service fees the center would collect. Administrators also acknowledged that staff productivity was below targets set by center leadership.
In the end, the commission eliminated the vacant positions and brought next year’s projected budget more in line with anticipated receipts.
Last month, the commission approved a transfer of roughly $1 million to help the center meet its financial obligations into early next year.
The commissioners that expressed concerns about having the commission take over from the mental health board were John Toplikar, Michael Ashcraft, and Ed Peterson.
Toplikar contended a take-over would violate language in Section 5 of the charter that requires a vote of the public — “where required by law” — if the commission proposes to reorganize county government.
“How can we just flat out ignore this? Toplikar asked.
The county’s chief counsel, Don Jarrett, said the commissioners would not be violating the charter.
Rather, he said, they would be following state law that allows the commission to sit as the mental health board, so long as it created a community advisory board.
Ashcraft worried that having the commission step in as the oversight body would run counter to other language in Section 5 that references members of the county’s governing boards being appointed for “definite terms.”
He asked if the commission could push members out before the end of those terms.
Jarrett said the members of the mental health governing board served at the pleasure of the commission. The intent of the language Ashcraft referenced, Jarrett said, was to ensure the commission did not make open-ended appointments.
Ashcraft suggested the county have additional legal review by the state Attorney General’s Office. County staff said they would see if they could get any additional guidance before next week’s commission meeting.
Peterson said the proposed resolution set out an “unclear path” for how long the commission would sit as the mental health board and if the commission would re-establish a separate board at some point.
Eilert pressed for passage of the resolution on Thursday, saying more delay would “leave a vulnerable population and a vulnerable organization in limbo.”
Klika seconded the need for immediate action. “It’s time to step up and take some leadership,” he said.