Health workers get shaft from the city

Posted: Wednesday, March 01, 2000

The city's handling of its plans to layoff at least 40 of Juneau's Health and Social Services Department mental health workers leaves a lot to be desired.

Although the idea to move those city services to private and nonprofit groups has been talked about for years, the final decision appears to have been made behind closed doors last week with the press and public kept out. In addition, city officials at one point tried to kick out members of the press during another meeting with the affected workers.

The ironic part of that is the employees wanted the press there; it was the ``government'' that didn't. Which, of course, raises that old question - why?

Governments are notorious for going behind closed doors to discuss ``personnel'' and other so-called privileged information that apparently is too much for the public it serves to handle. While there may be extreme circumstances to exclude the public during negotiations, the debate and final decisions should be made with complete candor.

It would seem a decision to eliminate more than 40 people, as well as transfer a huge caseload to the private sector, ought to discussed more openly. Even the employees complained they had little notification that their jobs were being eliminated.

We're not here to argue the pros and cons of keeping the city in the mental health and chemical dependency business. If the private sector can handle the work, then public bodies should not compete with them. And with an ever increasingly tight fiscal budget, City Manager Dave Palmer probably made the right move.

But we are concerned with employee allegations that the city didn't care for them or their patients. Employees said they have faced chronic understaffing, a lack of communication from management, two suicides among staff and at least 20 resignations with only about half being replaced.

It's obvious, if only from the employees' standpoint, that the city did a poor job in handling this situation, even if it is the right one. The city needs to be more forthright - and especially open - when debating the idea of eliminating departments and several employees. Let's hope they learn a lesson.

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