‘The optics are horrible.’ Was hiring of interim health director a conflict of interest?

Dena Diorio has defended her decision to hire a consultant as interim health director.
Dena Diorio has defended her decision to hire a consultant as interim health director. Observer File Photo

Earlier this year, Mecklenburg County paid $25,000 to an outside consulting firm to recommend management changes and other reforms for its troubled health department.

Less than four months later, the county manager hired a partner in the firm – Alma “Gibbie” Harris – as interim county health director and agreed to pay her a salary of $20,000 a month.

Now, two county commissioners question whether the arrangement announced Tuesday has the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Praxis Partners, Harris’ company, is assessing the health department, which has come under scrutiny in recent months for failing to notify women about abnormal Pap smears and lax oversight of swimming pools. Outgoing Health Director Marcus Plescia resigned under pressure earlier this month.

Commissioners Jim Puckett and Pat Cotham told the Observer they are concerned because Harris was negotiating for the interim health director’s job at the same time her firm was supposed to be conducting an independent review.

“Hiring one of the persons contracted to report as an independent, third party has horrible optics,” Puckett said. “Unless the Praxis report is an utter condemnation of the health department, something I would not expect, this move brings into question the impartiality of the report.

“The skeptic would say this could be the perfect way to blunt any negative blowback that would prove embarrassing or worse for (Diorio) and other senior management.”

Cotham criticized the move, saying County Manager Dena Diorio should have considered input from commissioners before hiring Harris.

“I might’ve had fewer concerns if it were already done and we had a report from her group,” Cotham said.

In an email sent to commissioners Wednesday, Diorio defended the hiring.

“Our Public Health Department is in a complete rebuilding process,” Diorio said. “Her credentials are impeccable... and I can assure you that we will struggle to find a permanent Public Health Director that is not only willing, but possesses the skills needed to drive the change and implement the recommendations needed to right this ship.

“(Neither) she nor I would enter into an engagement that would compromise our credibility or integrity.”

Alma Harris
Former Wake and Buncombe County Health Director Alma “Gibbie” Harris has been named interim Mecklenburg County health director starting next week. Mecklenburg County

Diorio said Praxis was not hired to investigate errors and negligence in patient care. Another consulting firm, Navigant, was hired to look into those issues, she said.

Some current and former employees say that patients often sit in waiting rooms three to four hours for appointments at county-run clinics on Beatties Ford Road in west Charlotte and Billingsley Road on southeast Charlotte. Patients also sometimes receive inaccurate results from tests for pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases or don’t get needed follow-up after treatment, the employees said.

Navigant doesn’t have some of the needed expertise in public health, Diorio said, so Praxis has been assigned to review its recommendations.

But by March, the county had also hired a Navigant employee, Barbra Azzara, as a contract clinic manager until a permanent manager can be found.

Regaining public trust?

Even the health department’s harshest critics acknowledge that Harris has a strong reputation and the qualifications to lead the agency.

During her 25 years in public health, she has served as health director in Wake County, which includes Raleigh, and Buncombe County, which includes Asheville.

Harris retired from government in 2015 and is a founding partner for Praxis, which does consulting for health agencies across North Carolina and in other states.

In Mecklenburg, she will receive a salary of $20,000 per month for at least six months or until a permanent director is hired.

She takes over an agency mired in controversy since February when the Observer first reported officials failed to notify 185 women about their risk for cervical cancer following abnormal Pap smears.

Earlier this month, some commissioners said they are angry health department employees gave operating permits to public swimming pools without reinspecting water quality and equipment to ensure last season’s safety violations were fixed.

Commissioner Bill James said it makes sense to hire Harris as interim health director.

“It’s one thing if they hired the people that were doing most of the work, which would be Navigant,” James said. “Then, I think you should wait until they finish the report... But in Praxis’ case, their job was to provide public health director-level help to Dena, and hiring Ms. Harris as interim health director does nothing but do the same thing, but on a broader scale.”

But Puckett said the county should strive to avoid even the appearance of a conflict. The lapses with Pap smear notifications and other issues have damaged the health department reputation and lowered public trust, he said.

“It is paramount that we seek to regain the trust of the public and to that end optics are very important,” Puckett said. “There are plenty of reasons for the public to question what we are doing. How what we are doing is perceived is as important towards gaining back trust as what we do.”

Clasen-Kelly: 704-358-5027; @FrederickClasen

Metzler: 704-358-5433; @crmetzler