It was a damp Wednesday morning, 3/5 of the way into November. Fifteen minutes before the Mendocino County Mental Health Board was set to convene, a homeless man curled inside his sleeping bag on the cement front porch of Preston Hall in the town of Mendocino where said meeting was held. A small long-haired dog crouched faithfully alongside the sleeping bag.
You can't make these ironies up. Fortunately for early arrivals to the meeting there remained enough room on Preston Hall's front porch so they didn't have to step directly over the homeless fellow or swing the door into him either.
Of course, there is no easy solution to homelessness on the Mendocino Coast or the county as a whole. And the issue of homelessness always bleeds into mental health services. The Mental Health Board meeting no sooner opened than Matt O'Neill of Laytonville got up to speak during “Public Comments on Non-Agenda Items." Essentially Mr. O'Neill detailed the near abandonment of social services in Laytonville and the north county as a whole, a population that O'Neill estimated to be near 10,000 men, women, and children. In a note to me later, O'Neill stated, “We have done so much with so little funding, but we are tired of begging for scraps, as that's the way it feels. We simply can't get the attention of the powers that be in Ukiah.
“It's almost impossible to track Behavioral Health funding in this County! As you know, the entire Behavioral Health Program in our County is in a shambles, under investigation, and frankly, this move to privatization has been a miserable failure in terms of serving clients' needs.”
Ordinarily I would keep Mr. O'Neill's private note to me just that, private. However, what is there to lose for Mr. O'Neill, Laytonville, or northern Mendocino County to lose.
This whole county is at a loss, at a loss to understand why there aren't three votes on the Board of Supervisors to sever ties with Ortner Management Group (even the Mental Health Board abbreviates that to OMG, though they do omit the !). At this point Redwood Children's Services, the mental health provider for those twenty-four years of age and younger, has pretty much changed their name to Redwood Community Services. Either way it's RCS and, though they are not perfect, RCS might as well take over adult services as well. They seem to pay better wages, they hire better prepared employees, and manage subcontractors more effectively than OMG!
Why in Allah's name three members of the Board of Supes (almost slipped and wrote Stupes) can't see that Ortner Management Group is basically incompetent is beyond me. Don't blame the Mental Health Board. If polled privately a vast majority would say something similar. Publicly they can't get a straight answer from Mendocino County officials who seem intent on shielding Ortner from criticism.
Remember that then Mental Health Director Tom Pinizzotto and Health and Human Services Director Stacey Cryer were two of the people who scored the proposed bidders for privatized adult mental health services in Mendocino County. At the time, Pinizzotto was a recent employee of Ortner. Can you say conflict of interest? Can you say dysfunctional county bureaucracy, because what other definition is there for a county government that allows such a blatant conflict of interest to effect a mutli-million dollar decision. To up the conflict of interest ante, it is widely believed that one of the “anonymous” scorers on the privatized mental health contracts was Jim Shaw, then chair of the Mental Health Board and spouse of Anna Shaw, director of Mendocino Coast Hospitality Center, an entity that became the main financial beneficiary of Ortner's subcontracting on the coastal side of the county.
Pinizzotto is at least out as MH Director at the Mental Health Board meetings. Ms. Cryer has taken over on an interim basis. A full time Mental Health Director will require a recruitment search, according to the current methodology of those powers that be in Ukiah. In her presentation to the Mental Health Board Ms. Cryer alluded to the hiring of a recruitment firm, which in turn would supposedly attract the finest candidates for the MH Directorship. When queried about the cost to Mendocino County of said recruitment firm, Cryer wouldn't even venture a rough guess, though she was able to rattle off precise figures for "found" money that's been doled out in the past few weeks. A phone message to Cryer, concerning the cost of the recruitment firm, has gone unanswered as of press time.
And so it goes with Mendocino County finances. When it pleases county officials they can recite acronyms and numbers from here to Wahoo, but apparently some data remains too scary to be shown to the general public.
It would appear that all Laytonville and the north county are getting from the current pool of mystery social service monies is an eighteen thousand dollar pittance going to the Healthy Start program and a few hundred more here and there for other projects. Anybody want to bet on whether or not that recruitment firm ends up getting well over eighteen thousand?
Don't blame the lack of monetary transparency in Behavioral Health matters on the volunteers who serve on the Mental Health Board. They have been trying to get a substantive sit down meeting with County employees/officials for a year now to get basic financial data; you know, the kind everybody can understand, the kind most ordinary accountants could provide.
One of the key phrases in the last paragraph was "trying to." Ms. Cryer, when discussing the implementation of a "Laura's Law" system in Mendocino County, used that very phrase, "trying to," multiple times when referring to a Jan 1, 2016 deadline for Laura's Law in this county. Keep in mind Cryer and Mendocino County CEO Carmel Angelo are "trying to" get Laura's Law in place after its original implementaion date was supposed to be July 1, 2015.
MH Board members and audience participants had to remind and re-remind Cryer that the selection panel for the new, full-time, Mental Health Director needed to include at least one member of the Board, a consumer and a National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) volunteer as well. Left to their own devices it would appear that Cryer and Angelo would hire a recruitment firm of their choosing without disclosing the cost, conduct their own in-house interviews, then present their self-selected MH Director to the MH Board for a tacit approval within a jampacked agenda in which the Board members would have virtually no time to examine the candidate. Why would anyone suspect this? Because that's essentially what happened the last time with Angelo and Cryer in charge.
Is there any possible chance that a majority of the Board of Supes would read this, pull their collective heads out of the darkness, and clean house? If you think so, take your life savings (if there's any left) and put it all on #23 red at your nearest casino roulette wheel. Better yet, give all your money to casino officials to place the bet for you, then ask them to tell you whether you won or lost.
* Malcolm Macdonald's website is: malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com