TRAVERSE CITY — The Northern Lakes Community Mental Health Authority Board is finalizing a months-long search for a new leader, just as some in the community — including former employees and elected officials — say the organization is wracked with turmoil.

A dysfunctional “culture of fear” has hobbled the region’s largest provider of mental health services, some former employees say, contending this internal strife is at least partially responsible for the more than 60 staff openings posted on the organization’s website.

“This is supposed to be a place where you’re safe, and you go to people to feel safe and be treated with kindness, and it’s not,” said Stephanie Annis, who previously worked at the organization as a case manager, a therapist and a social worker.

Annis was fired Oct. 1 for what records show NLCMHA listed as a billing issue, but Annis says was retaliation for her support of another terminated employee.

“As soon as Karl was out the door, the culture of fear just amped,” Annis said.

Chief Executive Officer Karl Kovacs retired at the end of July after running the organization since 2015, board records show.

Joanie Blamer, a staff member from the organization’s leadership team, was promoted to interim CEO by NLCMHA’s board and is one of two finalists for the permanent job, board members announced during a Dec. 16 board meeting.

The other finalist is David Pankotai, CEO of Macomb County Community Mental Health and a former president of the state chapter of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

Final interviews are scheduled for Jan. 10 and officials and community members say the new CEO of the $73 million organization will be tasked with repairing its reputation.

“It’s my hope that whomever accepts the position will begin to heal relationships with the entities that Northern Lakes partners with and also change the public perception about the organization,” said County Commissioner Penny Morris, who serves as liaison to the NLCMHA board.

One of those partners was the Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Office.

But after months of negotiations, a proposed contract between GTCSO and NLCMHA to provide additional mental health services to people incarcerated in the county’s jail, ended in a stalemate.

Sheriff Tom Bensley and Jail Administrator Capt. Chris Barsheff gave public comment during the Dec. 16 board meeting, stating the organization appeared unwilling to tailor services to jail needs.

Bensley said the experience of trying to negotiate with the organization was frustrating and that NLCMHA refused to consider suggested programs for the jail that would comply with correctional rules and standards.

“We, and many in the community, have lost faith in Northern Lakes Community Mental Health and the current leadership,” Bensley said, in a Dec. 9 letter to Mary Marois, a NLCMHA board member and CEO search committee chair.

“I feel it’s time to get rid of the same old, same old and look outside of the organization for someone who will bring collaboration and cooperation with local organizations,” Bensley said.

The sheriff told the board he would be willing to discuss the contents of his letter and invited board members to contact him to do so.

None had done so as of Thursday, he said. During the board meeting, Chair Randy Kamp told public commenters it was the board’s policy to listen but not to respond during the meeting.

Marois directed questions from a Record-Eagle reporter to Kamp and neither Blamer nor Kamp responded to requests for comment on the sheriff’s letter and other organizational challenges as of Friday.

Deb Lavender, an administrative staff member with NLCMHA, confirmed the questions had been forwarded to all board members.

Family members of those who receive or have received services from the organization have also begun to speak out about what they feel is best for NLCMH’s future.

For example, Kate Dahlstrom, whose adult son was previously incarcerated in the jail and has received services from NLCMHA, said she, too, supports a leadership change.

The interim CEO has institutional knowledge valuable to the organization, Dahlstrom said, though new ideas are needed.

“Under current leadership, there has been a lack of proactive and forward-thinking initiatives, especially for SMI/SED folks,” Dahlstrom said, in a letter to board members.

The abbreviation “SMI/SED” refers to those diagnosed with severe mental illness and serious emotional disturbance. Another abbreviation, IDD, refers to those diagnosed with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Dahlstrom said she thought NLCMHA needs to prioritize services for those with severe and moderate mental illness as well as those with intellectual disabilities — not one over the others.

“If you are committed to better SMI/SED services, then please make the necessary changes and decisions,” Dahlstrom said, in her letter to the board. “If not, it would be my recommendation that Grand Traverse County leave NLCMH.”

Under a 2003 agreement between Crawford, Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Missaukee, Roscommon and Wexford counties, NLCMHA agrees to provide “a comprehensive array” of mental health services to residents, in exchange for annual per-resident payments from the counties.

The six counties have a current population of more than 200,000 residents and the 68-page agreement also specifically mentions services to people incarcerated.

It states NLCMHA shall provide mental health services to county correctional facilities at no additional cost, as needed — a repeated sticking point between the organization and Grand Traverse County.

County Commission Chair Rob Hentschel, who previously served on NLCMHA’s board, said he has long believed the wording puts NLCMHA in breach of the agreement.

Yet there are no imminent plans for the county to leave NLCMHA, he said.

“Basically, the pain of staying the same has been less than the pain of changing,” Hentschel said. “It’s a monumental task to create a new CMH. Could the county be better served by partnering with Leelanau for a smaller CMH? It has been discussed.”

Hentschel, too, said he believed NLCMHA would be better served by bringing in someone from outside its ranks to serve as the new CEO, thereby avoiding any perception of the organization as one of “same old, same old” decision-making.

Others within the organization and who work in health care say the job should go to Blamer.

Letters of support for Blamer were sent to the board by Stacey Kaminsky, NLCMHA operations manager for crisis services; Deb Freed, managing director of Freed Communications and Terri Lacroix-Kelty, Munson Medical Center’s behavioral health director.

They referenced Blamer’s work ethic, experience and knowledge of Michigan’s CMH system.

“Joanie has exceptional experience and a clear understanding of the CMHSP and state behavioral health system in Michigan,” Lacroix-Kelty said in her Nov. 5 letter. “She has both the administrative and clinical knowledge that is an asset to the CEO role.”

NLCMHA board members will conduct final interviews of Blamer and Pankotai during a special board meeting Jan. 10, and a decision is expected soon after, board records show.

Annis, now a social worker at an area nursing home, said she hopes the board considers how the new CEO will address the “toxic” work culture she and others witnessed.

Annis filed complaints with NLCMHA’s human resources department and with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, regarding her firing, records show.

She said supervisors falsely accused her of not counseling residents in adult foster care homes she was assigned, while she contends the pandemic necessitated as many as 200 of those sessions be conducted via telehealth, which she did.

Former operations Manager Rob Ordiway, who records show applied for the CEO position though was not a finalist, also filed an EEOC complaint against NLCMHA, records show.

Ordiway declined comment but records provided the Record-Eagle show he was fired on or about July 28, following interviews conducted by Grand Rapids attorney Keith Brodie, with several of Ordiway’s colleagues, including Annis.

Brodie confirmed he represents NLCMHA, though cited attorney client privilege when asked whether he was also hired as the private investigator looking into Ordiway’s personal life, as stated in Ordiway’s EEOC complaint.

“We were invited to a meeting to supposedly talk about how we were doing under COVID,” Annis said, of herself and several colleagues. “Then when we got there, we were told the man was a private investigator, hired by the interim CEO, to look into Rob over a possible affair with another staff member.”

Annis identified Brodie as the man who conducted the interviews.

Christine Saah Nazer, an EEOC spokesperson, declined comment on the complaints, citing confidentiality.

Blamer and Marois also declined comment on a reporter’s specific questions about the complaints.

Other current and former employees who spoke to the Record-Eagle but declined to be named on the record citing fears of reprisal, said if substantiated, EEOC complaints could impact NLCMHA’s federal funding.

Records show about 77 percent of NLCMHA’s funding, or $57 million in 2020, comes from Medicaid, much of which is administered by the Northern Michigan Regional Entity.

The EEOC’s Saah Nazer referred a reporter’s questions to Medicaid administration policy and a State of Michigan contract states funding could be imperiled by such complaints.

Terry Pechacek, who previously worked at NLCMHA as a crisis team supervisor, said she thinks this is one of the most important moments in the organization’s 18-year history.

“Think about what you are looking for in a leader of this organization,” Pechacek said, when asked for her advice for the board.

“Meeting after meeting isn’t productive,” Pechacek said. “Listen to people who have a stake in this organization. Do you have the results you’re looking for? If not it might be time for a change.”

Those interested in sharing their opinion with the board regarding the CEO search or other issues can contact the board via their public email address, nlcmha.board@nlcmh.org.

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