New DSS leader brings change, controversy

On any given day, hundreds of people crowd into the Mecklenburg Department of Social Services offices, with a variety of needs.

New DSS Director Mary Wilson said some clients wait longer for service than the department wants. Others have to see multiple people to get help.

Wilson wants to serve those people better and run DSS more efficiently. Since taking over in July, she's announced plans to merge some operations, create new divisions and launch a review of how agency departments are running.

County leaders and many DSS employees say they support her ideas.

But Wilson's arrival has disturbed other staff. Some have sent anonymous notes to county leaders critical of decisions Wilson has made and of her lack of experience working in social services.

County Manager Harry Jones and many commissioners say they stand by Wilson's appointment.

“Change is so difficult for everyone, and I recognize that,” said Wilson. “I have tried to be as thoughtful and as considerate as possible, but the needs of the business are such that we are going to have to implement change.”

The second-largest county department, DSS has about 1,200 employees and a $180.5 million budget, including $68.5 million in local money.

The agency serves all ages, from infants to the elderly, and administers a variety of programs.

DSS has been praised and criticized over the years. Local leaders say many staff members are passionate about their work.

Tensions among some staff members have simmered in recent years. In April 2007, two ex-DSS employees sued the county and three of their former co-workers alleging they were wrongly forced from their jobs after voicing concern about racism and incompetency at the agency.

That suit was dismissed in late July.

Longtime DSS Director Richard “Jake” Jacobsen left last year to become an executive-in-residence at UNC Charlotte. The county is paying his salary.

Jacobsen and Jones have said the suit did not play a role in the reassignment.

Staff divisions played out in other ways, including anonymous letters critical of various DSS leaders.

“That department got to a point where I did not feel we were moving forth in a positive direction,” Jones said.

Wilson won a search committee's nomination to become DSS director, and county commissioners unanimously approved the hire in June. Wilson's salary is $150,000.

Wilson, 51, has spent the bulk of her career in the corporate world as an attorney and most recently was executive director of the Friendship Community Development Corp.

Anonymous challenge raised

Wilson spent her first month and a half on the job meeting with people in and out of DSS to learn the department. Many praised DSS. But they also offered ideas for strengthening the department, such as dispersing more services across the county.

Wilson also wants DSS departments to work better together and talks of breaking down the “silos of management.”

Wilson has consolidated some units, including creating a business affairs division. A new policy unit will oversee implementation of state and federal rules.

Wilson said she's heard from many employees who support her ideas. But the changes have angered others.

In an Aug. 5 letter sent to county commissioners and Jones, a person who claimed to be a DSS employee wrote that Wilson “has been on the job one month but has wreaked more havoc in this short time than all the years I have worked at DSS.”

The letter also said it was “absurd” that Wilson would make changes so quickly, given her inexperience in DSS, and said a hiring freeze could threaten the department.Wilson said she was initially unnerved by the letter, but defends her actions.

About her background, Wilson said she is looking more at the department's administrative structure and service delivery. “The actual social services piece of it … that's not my area of strength,” she said. “I depend on my subject matter experts to tell me what's going on there.”

She said she suspended widespread hiring until the department completes a business review. But she said the division leaders have been cleared to make hires on an as-needed basis and about 40 employees have joined, including the business affairs director.

Commissioners, Jones react

The letter drew reactions from commissioners and Jones.

In an e-mail to commissioners, Jones wrote he doesn't normally respond to anonymous letters, but felt the need to do so in this case.

“This new leadership is asking questions, quite frankly, that need to be asked; questions that challenge the status quo,” he wrote in part.

Jones also recently called a series of DSS staff meetings. He told the Observer he wants to help DSS staff “build an organization of trust, and also to value and to respect each other.”

Several commissioners say they support Wilson's early steps, but note she still needs time to settle into the job.

Parks Helms, who was on the director search committee, said there was debate over whether to hire someone with a non-traditional background. In the end, he said the committee wanted a strong leader.

Chairman Jennifer Roberts said she's heard great things about Wilson.

Dan Bishop praised Wilson's interest in efficiency and innovation. “I left with an impression that she is tackling the thing aggressively,” Bishop said. “She is working hard to communicate with staff. … She's not going to look for fights, I think, but neither is she going to be tied like a puppy dog to a chain.”