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Cleveland Overhauls Health Department After Workplace Morale Probe

A man leaves Cleveland City Hall in December 2019. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
A man leaves Cleveland City Hall in December 2019.

Updated: 5:43 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson is shaking up the city’s health department after an internal probe found supervisors made “detrimental mistakes” and treated staff unfairly, the mayor’s office announced Tuesday.

As part of the overhaul, Health Director Merle Gordon has been reassigned to a new job overseeing population health initiatives. Brian Kimball, the city’s environment commissioner, will run the daily operations of the department, which is at the forefront of Cleveland’s coronavirus response.

“These changes are not taken lightly, but are necessary to ensure an operation that will effectively provide health services to Cleveland and its residents,” Jackson said in a press release announcing the moves.

The mayor also put the public health department under the city’s Office of Prevention, Intervention and Opportunities for Youth and Young Adults, headed by Chief Tracy Martin-Thompson.

The internal review, headed by Martin-Thompson and former Safety Director Martin Flask, criticized department leadership and found low morale among employees, according to a summary of the investigation’s findings.

The city announced the probe in July after Cleveland Scene published allegations of discrimination and poor treatment within the department. While the city’s review did not sustain the discrimination claims, it recommended employees receive training on cultural competency and implicit bias.

“The investigation did not demonstrate intentional or unintentional mistreatment of employees based on a protected class; the investigatory team does understand and recognize that all people have bias,” the summary said. “Further, the team found employees of all races and ethnicities were treated unfairly due the lack of skill in supervising employees.”

A survey of health department employees largely found they felt their supervisors were available and engaged with their staffs, according to the summary. But a majority of responding employees said they felt neutral or negatively about work at the department.

The city also released a statement from Gordon accompanying the news release and summary of findings.

“It’s been my honor to serve this City and the Department of Public Health through successful achievement of accreditation through the Public Health Accreditation Board (PHAB) and as Incident Commander through COVID-19 Response, the global pandemic that changed our lives entirely,” Gordon said. “I’m proud of the entire CDPH team. I continue to be committed to this community every day and look forward to working with you in this new capacity as we strive towards improving population health in Cleveland.”

The Jackson administration also plans to set up an audit committee to review the health department’s grant programs monthly, after the city lost a $1.5 million state grant for AIDS prevention late last year.

The city will search for a consulting firm to examine the department’s management, according to the summary. The mayor’s office also plans to bring in the Diversity Center, a local nonprofit, to run professional development sessions on reducing bias in hiring.

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.