CADILLAC — Board members of the region’s largest provider of mental health services in a split decision voted to offer the agency's top job to someone outside the organization.

Monday’s vote was 8-4 to offer the chief executive officer position with Northern Lakes Community Mental Health Authority to Dave Pankotai, who currently holds a similar job in Macomb County. He was one of two finalists along with Joanie Blamer, who has been with the organization for more than a decade and has been interim CEO since July following the retirement of Karl Kovacs.

The decision followed several hours of public comment, interviews and board discussion.

A number of current employees of Northern Lakes spoke in favor of Blamer, the subject of recent criticism for what some employees and former employees previously characterized as a toxic work environment.

Several board members expressed dismay over being kept in the dark about ongoing staffing and human resources problems.

Mary Marois, chair of the board’s CEO search committee, made an impassioned speech, stating the organization — and the board — faced systemic problems which only came to light during the search.

“We have got to take a look at our governance, and we have got to make some amendments to the way in which we operate, so that we are more in control of what is happening in this organization,” Marois said, following in-person interviews with both candidates.

Marois said the board was not living up to its oversight responsibilities, was blindsided by recent news that two former employees had filed complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and by the extent of the organization’s staffing shortages.

Former operations Manager Rob Ordiway and Stephanie Annis, who previously worked at the organization as a case manager, a therapist and a social worker, both filed labor complaints with the EEOC, following an internal investigation into Ordiway’s private life, records show.

Marois on Monday estimated the organization has about 70 vacancies, a number also reflected in job openings posted on the organization’s website.

“To be blindsided, to believe in a transparency that’s not there — when we have board meetings, instead of getting the good, the bad and the ugly we get the good,” Marois said, adding she called employees who confirmed toxic work environment reports but told her they would not speak publicly because they had seen others who had done so face ramifications.

Pankotai told the board his first 100 days would be spent on a listening tour —“donuts with Dave,” he called it — where he’d meet with elected officials, community leaders and members of community organizations, including NAMI Grand Traverse, a grassroots organization advocating for people with mental illness and their families.

Pankotai listed as strengths his ability to listen, his sense of humor, his desire to care for others and his experience in mental health.

Rick Coates, a radio personality and operations director for NAMI Grand Traverse, and Judy Barrett, president of the organization’s board, both spoke during public comment, as did Toni Stanfield, a psychologist and founder of Before During and After Incarceration.

“Our jail is a psychiatric hospital,” Stanfield, a mother of a son diagnosed with bipolar disorder, said. “The jail is where treatment happens. My son received the majority of his treatment in jail. I am a strong advocate for services delivered by community mental health and not by the jail. So, you have a very, very difficult task today. Choose the kind of person who will collaborate well because we need changes in our system.”

Ongoing negotiations between the Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Office and Northern Lakes, in which the organization would provide additional mental health services to people incarcerated in the county’s jail, broke down last year.

Sheriff Tom Bensley told Marois in a Dec. 9 letter, the GTSO and many in the community had lost faith in Northern Lakes after that and he said new leadership was needed.

On Monday, prior to the vote offering him the job, Pankotai said if hired, meeting with the sheriff would be an early listening tour priority.

Bensley said the new hire, and his willingness to meet, was good news.

“When he starts, I sure would like our office to have the opportunity to sit down and talk with him,” said Bensley. “We will chat about what we deal with in the jail and on the street. About what we’re doing and what we’re trying to do.”

An ad hoc committee of three will meet to propose a salary and benefit package offer and a start date.

Several board members referenced rumors Blamer might leave the organization if she was not offered the top job, stating they hoped she would stay and work alongside Pankotai.

One board member quipped, it would be a “dream team.”

Blamer did not return a request for comment Monday.

The next meeting of the Northern Lakes board is Jan. 20 at 2:15 p.m. at the organization’s Cadillac office. A remote option may be available and the meeting is open to the public.

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