Mecklenburg County names interim health director

Alma Harris
Alma Harris Mecklenburg County

Former Wake and Buncombe County Health Director Alma “Gibbie” Harris has been named interim Mecklenburg County health director starting next week, County Manager Dena Diorio said Tuesday night.

Harris replaces Marcus Plescia, who resigned effective Aug. 4.

Plescia came under public scrutiny in February when the Observer first reported that the agency failed to notify 185 women about their risk for cervical cancer following abnormal Pap smears.

Commissioners questioned his management after it was learned that employees knew about the lapses for nearly a month before Plescia was informed.

The county’s human resources department investigated and concluded in March that the Health Department’s management showed a “lack of leadership” and failed to respond to concerns raised by employees.

Former Mecklenburg County Health Director Marcus Plescia Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Harris has worked with the county for several months as a consultant with Praxis Partners for Health. Plescia will help Harris with the transition, Diorio said.

Diorio called the hiring of Harris “a huge step in the right direction.” Diorio announced Harris’ hiring to the Board of County Commissioners Tuesday night.

“She has experience in all divisions of the public health system and knows the challenge Mecklenburg County is facing to improve,” Diorio said in a statement. “I truly believe she’s the right person to begin moving Health in the right direction.”

Harris retired from county government in 2015 and is a founding partner for Praxis Partners. She will earn $20,000 per month for at least six months or until a permanent director is hired.

Public Health has about 800 employees and multiple divisions, including School Health, Community Health Services, Clinical Health and Environmental Health.

During her 25 years in public health, Harris led efforts to identify health priorities, work to prevent and control communicable diseases, improve health outcomes and assure equity among all residents, according to Diorio.

Harris also helped manage the transitions of single county health departments into consolidated health and human services agencies, which Mecklenburg County is working to achieve with Public Health, the Department of Social Services and Community Support Services, Diorio said.

As health director for Buncombe County in 2011, she was named North Carolina Health Director of the Year.

Harris said in the statement released by Mecklenburg County government that she is ready for the task ahead.

“There are a lot of things Mecklenburg County Public Health is doing right,” she said. “And there are also a lot of things we can do better. I am confident we can identify and implement the changes necessary to better serve our customers and restore public trust.”

Her first day on the job is Monday.

Commissioner Jim Puckett said he still has a question about the hiring. “So county manager hires consultant who is investigating health dept.,” Puckett said in an email to the Observer late Tuesday. “Any chance it could affect outcome of report now that she works for manager?”

Joe Marusak: 704-358-5067, @jmarusak