Layoffs stir ire over city management

Workers vent about handling of city's mental health program

Posted: Friday, February 25, 2000

A meeting of city officials and Health and Social Services department staff generated a lot of heat Thursday as the city manager attempted to shed light on his plan to lay off most of the department.

Earlier in the day, City Manager Dave Palmer announced that at least 40 of Juneau's Health and Social Services Department mental health workers will lose their jobs because the city is getting out of the mental health and chemical dependency business.

Palmer said he expected many of the staffers would find jobs with the private and nonprofit groups and agencies that take over the services.

Objections to the plan from the approximately 40 attendees ranged from lack of notification, to poor management practices, to accusations that the city lacked concern for the department's patients and clientele.

Department mental health clinician John Faine said the city had been talking about privatization of services for two years, though that effort seemed to have been deferred with a restructuring of the department in August 1999.


``But because poor management practices were deployed, the plan never came to fruition,'' said Faine. ``I'm convinced the city manager hired (Health and Social Services Department Director) Christine Blackgoat to dismantle the department.''

Department staff are now speculating that the most debilitated patients, that is, those with the poorest ability to cope, will suffer the greatest impact, Faine said.

``I personally feel that department management, as it stands now, does not have the ability to address patient transition (to other agencies) in a meaningful way,'' he said.

Staff morale at the department has been ``in the toilet,'' for some time, said Juneau Rehabilitation Hospital Counselor Sheryl Cole.

Chronic understaffing and a lack of straightforward communication from management have been factors in the general disaffection, she said.

``The question arises: Who takes care of the caretakers? There have been two suicides among staff in the past two years and at least 20 resignations,'' Cole said.

Only about half of those who resigned were replaced, Cole said.

Case worker Maya Schiff is concerned that service to outlying areas would cease.

``We now get calls from Gustavus, Angoon, Hoonah,'' she said, and wondered aloud whether private and nonprofit agencies taking responsibility for the department's clients could also serve those areas.

Schiff also expressed concern that department staff called to local schools to counsel students in emergencies might not be a consideration after the transition.

Though department staff demonstrated disparate concerns with the city's move, most unified in an expression of outrage at the start of the meeting when Juneau Chief of Police Mel Personett entered the room and attempted to evict members of the press. Reacting to the attendees' reaction, the city manager said he would allow the media to remain in the room.

The meeting, originally slated for the downtown fire hall, was rescheduled for the new police station by the city manager's office.

``The mood generally is one of shock, numbness and disbelief,'' Faine said. ``We are in limbo.''

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