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Cleveland Officials, City Council Discuss Plan To Improve Health Department

An internal review of the Cleveland Department of Health found employees had low morale and was highly critical of leadership. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
The American Flag above Cleveland City Hall viewed from the sidewalk below.

Cleveland is preparing for the first phase of efforts to improve morale and managerial practices within the city’s Department of Public Health.

City officials Monday presented Cleveland City Council with a two-part plan for reorganizing and stabilizing the department, including efforts to improve relationships between managers, supervisors and employees after an internal review was highly critical of department leadership.

The review did not find racial or gender discrimination in the department, said Cleveland Director of Human Resources Nycole West, but other mistreatment of employees and mistakes were widespread.

“We saw employees, again, of various races, national origins and ages and genders seeing, we felt, a mistreatment or inequity,” West said Monday.

The city has already taken steps to improve the department, West said, including the reassignment of ftormer CDPH Director Merle Gordon and the appointment of Brian Kimball as interim director. The director position will be posted soon, West said, and the city will use a third-party firm for recruitment.

Internal fact-finding hearings are ongoing to collect more information on the current state of the department, West said. Officials are investigating how job performance has been impacted by the problems, she said.

“We all recognize that this is not going to be a short-term solution, or a short-term resolution,” West said. “We are going to be in this for a long time, stabilizing this department.”

The department currently has nearly 30 vacant positions it aims to fill, West said, including positions funded both by the city itself and by grants.

The city intends to study CDPH’s efficacy and offer an action plan for improvement, West said. Officials plan to have a consultant in place by the end of the year, she said.

“We cannot just pull every city department at one time. However, this is something that we are discussing rolling out department by department,” West said. “It has to start with public health, because that’s what we’re focused on today.”

Councilman Matt Zone asked city officials whether the consultant would look back at CDPH’s management history. The problems coming to light now are part of issues that have been around for some time, he said.

“I don’t know if bad practices were adopted by succeeding leadership with that department, and by the time it got to the most previous leader of this department, it might have been so toxic inside of there that we really need to look at operationally, how do we move forward,” Zone said.

Moving forward, West said, will include department employees getting varying levels of training to combat bias and mistreatment in the workplace, in addition to trainings already in place. CDPH employees will get an Equal Employment Opportunity rules refresher, to inform them of their protections and what to look out for, West said, while executive managers will go through anti-racism training.

Supervisors will go through two trainings to address effective communication methods and their roles and responsibilities in disciplinary action and grievance procedures, West said. HR leads citywide will undergo training to mitigate bias in the hiring process.

Efforts to address dysfunction within the health department need to be ongoing, said Council President Kevin Kelley.

“I will just really ask you and the new leadership in the Department of Health, that the plan laid out, we have to stay on this,” Kelley said. “This has to be daily, it has to be the most important thing that we do to keep this department functioning.”

Some of the supervisory and managerial issues have led to detrimental mistakes, West said, such as the city’s loss of a $1.5 million state grant for HIV and AIDS prevention, treatment, testing and education .

“Our report says that there were detrimental mistakes when doing some things, so I think that we are demonstrating that there were some decisions we know that we can no longer continue to enforce or to allow,” West said.

The reorganization also calls for the creation of multiple new positions to cut down on such mistakes, West said. The new hires include an assistant director or chief of staff, assistant or deputy commissioner for the Division of Health, and a grants manager. The city also plans to establish a grant oversight and audit committee.