First the good news, then the bad news, then a little more bad and good. Even the bureaucratic world of this county's mental health system is manic depressive, or is it bipolar. You figure it out.
At the October meeting of Mendocino County's Mental Health Board, Chairman John Wetzler and his fellow board members were left a bit flummoxed and frustrated at news that the Board of Supervisors had once again postponed an agenda item proposing adoption of Laura's Law. Laura's Law stems from Assembly Bill 1421 which was signed into state law more than a decade ago. It is named for Laura Wilcox a fledgling mental health worker who was murdered by a man who had refused psychiatric treatment. The California law, modeled on a earlier one in New York, provides for court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment (AOT), but the law must be authorized by each county's board of supervisors before going into effect. Despite support from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the Police Chiefs Association, and the California Psychiatric Association, Mendocino's county government has hemmed and hawed over Laura's Law despite a letter of support from the Mental Health Board.
At that October Mental Health Board meeting Fifth District Supervisor Dan Hamburg appeared genuinely embarrassed that Laura's Law had been snatched from the Board of Supes agenda yet again. And who controls that agenda? Apparently the Clerk of the Board and Mendocino County's CEO, Carmel Angelo. Why the county CEO has continually stalled Laura's Law can only be explained by her, but Angelo doesn't do much explaining.
The first piece of good news is that between mid October and early November somebody saw the political light and Laura's Law made its way back onto the Supes agenda, where the proposed pilot program squeaked by on a 5-0 vote.
Now, the bad news: Mendocino County's bureaucrats inside the Health and Human Services Agency want to hold off the actual implementation of Laura's Law until July of next year. When this was announced at the November Mental Health Board meeting by Mental Health Director Tom Pinizzotto (the number two bureaucrat at Health and Human Services) members of the Board questioned the slow implementation process. Some could be heard to say that at least three Supervisors had already expressed a desire to have Laura's Law fully in place within 90 days. One doesn't need a flow chart to read the disconnect between the bureaucrats and the elected officials in this county, though when push comes to shove, as in the County response to the Grand Jury report on the state of privatized adult mental health services, all the current Supes, except Dan Gjerde, have bowed down to bureaucrats like County Counsel Doug Losak, CEO Angelo, and head of Health and Human Services, Stacey Cryer.
Near the end of the November 19th meeting Mental Health Director Pinizzotto again chastized the Mental Health Board, and everyone in the room for that matter, to work together without question. There were a couple of nodding heads while Pinizzotto spoke, but when he was done several Mental Health Board members countered with comments that boiled down to the point that sometimes hard questioning is necessary in order to productively move forward.
Pinizzotto's words came near the end of a discussion about the potential start up of an 11 o'clock calendar at the Ten Mile Courthouse in Fort Bragg. The 11 o'clock court provides a way of finding alternatives to jail for low level criminals diagnosed with mental illness. It has been running for more than a year in Ukiah. At the November 19th meeting, Supervisor Hamburg read a message from Judge David Nelson that essentially said that all parties involved (Ten Mile Court Judge Clayton Brennan, the DA's office, and the Public Defender's office) were on board with implementation of an 11 o'clock court calendar in Fort Bragg. Once more, though, Pinizzotto's remarks implied delay.
The Mental Health Board seemed ready to demand a precise time line. Astute readers may remember that this same subject, the delay in putting into place an 11 o'clock court in Fort Bragg, was discussed in these pages during the first week of January, 2014.
The final agendized item for the November 19th meeting of the Mental Health Board was an interview for a proposed new board member. Oddly, the candidate's application was published on the back of the agenda packet, with private, family details included. Chairman Wetzler announced that all present, Board and public, would be allowed to stay for the interview. According to multiple sources, the Mental Health Board had been given this directive by County Counsel Doug Losak. To his credit Supervisor Hamburg objected to this open airing of what in most personnel matters would be a closed session. Members of the public present seemed sympathetic to Hamburg's opinion and voluntarily left the premises. Why the County Counsel felt compelled to order a public session might have remained a total mystery except for what happened as the public prepared to leave. Some folks witnessed Mental Health Director Tom Pinizzotto telling Hamburg to question the potential Board appointee because that person had, in his words, disrupted the previous day's Mental Health Services Act (MHSA) meeting with too many questions, questions which harassed his staff members.
What seems obvious is that Pinizzotto feels threatened by Mental Health Board members who may do just that, ask questions. More serious is the matter of the County's Mental Health Director exercising undue influence upon the Mental Health Board's own selection process, not to mention pressuring a member of the Board of Supervisors whose role is liaison with the Mental Health Board. Add to this the County Counsel ordering the Mental Health Board to conduct an interview in a manner that could not only bring undue pressure on the applicant, but offering such advice to the Mental Health Board when the advice was erroneous.
In journalistic terms the lead has been buried here. However, all the incidents along the way needed explanation, so that the conclusion will hopefully be as clear to the Board of Supervisors as it is to the reading public.
What we have in Mendocino County is a Mental Health Director exercising undue influence on a countywide advisory board and a County Counsel pressuring that same board to conduct what should be a closed session interview in public. These are not acceptable behaviors for Mendocino County staffers at any level, let alone the powerful positions of County Counsel and MH Director.