Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Evolving Story of the Problems at Mountain Valley Mental Health

Mountain Valley Mental Health (MVMH) is the provider of mental health services for Baker County. Their $1.8 million contract is up for renewal annually and is, according to Commissioner Kerns, the largest category in the County budget.

The following story by Baker City Citizen watch-dog extraordinaire, Gary Dielman, was written on January 24th of this year. It provides much of the detail and background material that was not reported on by the local papers while the problems were festering at MVMH over the last few years. The papers largely avoided the story, until, due to the tenacious commitment and efforts of the local citizens group called Healthy Mental Health (HMH), the problems could no longer be avoided. [Disclosure: I, Chris, am a supportive, if not so active member of HMH]

To their great credit, “The Record Courier” printed the following letter in its entirety. Gary’s article provides a revealing glimpse of how local “good-old-boy” networks appear to protect each other’s interests while neglecting their regulatory responsibilities. If not that, then common negligence is the best face one can put on it. In the process, good people and innocent bystanders are put at risk or hurt, and taxpayer dollars may be wasted. Reporting on the activities of these powerful local networks is routinely avoided by the local papers, leaving one to wonder if the papers identify themselves with, or see themselves as a part of, these local elite interests.

One example of the kind of biased reporting we have come to expect from the Baker City Herald was a February 8th report by reporter Mike Ferguson on a County Commissioner’s hearing concerning Mountain Valley Mental Health. As usual, the article (“Group Wants County to Cancel Contract”), deferred to government sources and the powers that be at the expense of reporting on what was said by concerned citizens during the hour plus long presentation. Mike gave a state regulator and the Commissioners 15.25 column inches while the HMH presenters who did most the talking during the hour plus long hearing got 6.75". MVMH Board chair, Dr. Larry Levinger, was given 3.5 inches, and he didn’t even attend the hearing.

Also, Mike did not report on Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative founder Peggy Timm's comments about the ease with which a qualified replacement agency could be formed--just the State bureaucrat’s negative remarks about canceling the contract. Mike also quoted a MVMH client about how change caused by bringing in a replacement agency would negatively affect clients, but he didn’t offset that by mentioning that change due to high turnover has been affecting past and present clients negatively, and is one of the issues repeatedly brought up by HMH. He also neglected to mention that there have been other clients come forward who did not like their experience at the agency after their long-time therapists and others left. These are just some of the problems with that article and Herald coverage of the issue in general.

Baker County Blog will be commenting the Herald’s continuing coverage of this issue and there are plans for future contributions on the subject from HMH members.
Failure of Adequate Oversight of MVMH Program at all Levels
by Gary Dielman

A week ago the State released a draft report of its December site review of Mountain Valley Mental Health (MVMH). Unlike all previous site reviews, which found MVMH in substantial compliance with statutory and regulatory rules, for the first time MVMH was “found to be not in substantial compliance.” That, to say the least, is an understatement of the findings, which are, in my opinion, a major indictment of the operations of MVMH. I will not address the site review further. The full report is available at the County Commission office in the courthouse.

The comments that follow answer the question: How did MVMH come to this sad state? How did it happen that a majority of the most qualified staff at MVMH either quit or were fired in the space of a year’s time? The answer, I submit, is the result a failure of oversight from lowest to highest levels. I’ll start at the local level and work up.

MVMH Administration and Board Level.

Over a period of years, employee’s complained to the Board of Directors of MVMH (Board) about former director Tim Mahoney. The Board either ignored the complaints or took no effective action. In either case, the employees received no feedback about their complaints. The abuses continued.

Out of total frustration, the employees banded together and presented to the Board a long list of complaints about Mahoney and the practices under which the program was being run. [Allegations were made as follows:] Mahoney was misdirecting MVMH staff, materials, and finances to his personal gain with no relationship to the mission of MVMH. With respect to his official duties, Mahoney failed to fully implement action plans required after State and Greater Oregon Behavioral Health, Inc., (GOBHI) site reviews three years ago, such as the requirement that MVMH develop and distribute to employees a policy manual. Mahoney and the Board failed to make sure MVMH complied with mandatory State and GOBHI action plans. During the most recent site review in December 2006, the State found the issues of three years ago still unaddressed.

The employees’ request to meet with the Board to discuss their concerns was turned down. After the employees hired an attorney to assist them in confronting the Board, last February the Board took action by demoting Mahoney but kept him on in a high level position with duties of dubious value to the organization and replaced him with a therapist who had worked under Mahoney for twenty years. The result: many employees saw no change in what they felt was an insufferable working environment and quit. One very experienced employee, who wouldn’t quit complaining, was fired.

In essence, the Board sacrificed the bulk of the most qualified staff in order to retain one highly ineffective administrator and to protect itself from what it felt was an impending law suit by the employees. It hunkered down and stonewalled all efforts of Baker County citizens to hold it responsible.

Baker County Commission Level.

Per Oregon Administrative Rules, the Baker County Board of Commissioners (Commission) decides what organization will provide mental health services in Baker County. Presently, and for over two decades, Baker County has contracted with MVMH to provide those services with an automatic renewal clause in the contract.

One of MVMH’s board members, Dr. Carl Stiff, is also a Baker County commissioner. There is an inherent conflict of interest in serving on both the Commission and the Board. Originally the County Commission no doubt thought he could be a liaison between the Commission and the Board. But when the employees brought to light serious problems at MVMH, Commissioner Stiff was precluded, so he said, from saying anything about the matter to the public—and I assume to his colleagues on the Commission—because of confidentiality of employee matters. So, one member of the Commission who should have been representing the citizens of Baker County by providing oversight over a $1,000,000 plus operation was effectively muzzled concerning the serious breakdown that had happened at MVMH. As far as I know, he remains muzzled to this day and ineffective in his role as part of oversight of the MVMH program.

Member of the MVMH Board, Barbara Warner, is the step-mother of County Commission Chair Fred Warner, Jr. I feel that Commissioner Warner has acted fairly in addressing MVMH problems that have recently been brought to the Commission’s attention. However, there is an appearance of impropriety, when a relative of a member of the Commission is on the board of a program that must seek the Commission’s approval for a contract to provide mental health services in Baker County. This apparent conflict begs the question, why, given a wealth of qualified persons in Baker County, did the Board appoint a relative of a commissioner?

Per Oregon Administrative Rules, the Commission is required to appoint a director of mental health programs for Baker County. Yet it appears that the Commission was unaware that such an appointment was necessary.

Per Oregon Administrative Rules, the Commission is required to appoint a Mental Health and Developmentally Disabled Advisory Committee to advise the Commission and the director of mental health programs. Last August I asked the Commission for a list of the members of the advisory committee. The Commission was unable to confirm that such a committee existed. In fact it didn’t exist and Commission Chair Warner admitted that he was unaware of the Commission’s duty to appoint such a committee. To the Commission’s credit, as soon as the Commission determined there was no mental health and developmentally disabled advisory committee in existence, it immediately advertised for interested parties to apply for appointment. And last November the commission appointed a ten-member committee.

In spite of the fact that the Commission has the responsibility to oversee the operations of MVMH, the Commission apparently failed to review the findings of the 2003 State and GOBHI site reviews or to make sure MVMH had complied with all required corrective actions before renewing the County’s contract with MVMH. Without such a review the Commission cannot possibly make an informed decision about contract renewal.

GOBHI level.

GOBHI provides a level of oversight of MVMH intermediate between County and State. Among other things, GOBHI receives required monthly statistical reports from MVMH to insure ongoing adequate levels of service and conducts site reviews every two years. However, until December 2006, it had not conducted a site review of MVMH for over three years.

Following the last site review three years ago, GOBHI sent MVMH a report of its assessment of the program. That report found that 46% of the policies and procedures were entirely missing and 26% were either incomplete or out of date. The report required that MVMH submit, within certain narrow time limits, an action plan directed toward improving a number of deficiencies uncovered during the site review. It appears that MVMH never submitted the plan and that GOBHI never followed up on MVMH’s lack of compliance. Follow up is important, because some of the deficiencies concerned licensure and having certified persons in the crisis management rotation. MVMH continued putting unqualified staff in charge of handling crisis intervention, which at times deals with life and death issues.

There is also conflict of interest at this level. The director of GOBHI is Kevin Campbell. He is the head of an agency that monitors the activities of MVMH, which, until recently, had been administered by Tim Mahoney. In their private lives, Director Campbell and Mahoney are business partners. In May of last year they purchased a laundromat in La Grande. When one partner of a private business supervises the other in their employment relationship as administrators of two semi-public agencies, this private business partnership, at the very least, presents a clear appearance of impropriety.

The composition of the GOBHI board of directors also presents an inherent conflict of interest. A good portion of the GOBHI board of directors consists of directors of programs over which GOBHI has oversight. That board hires the director of GOBHI. This means that Director Campbell is monitoring the operations of the persons who hired him.

State level.

The Department of Human Resources exercises oversight of MVMH to make sure that it follows State and Federal regulations in its provision of mental health services in Baker County. As a result of the site review three years ago, the State required that MVMH submit an action plan to correct certain deficiencies discovered in the site review. MVMH submitted an action plan to the State but failed to implement portions of the action plan. The State admits that it failed to make sure the 2003 action plan was fully implemented. As a consequence of that lack of follow-through, the State’s most recent site review found the old issues unaddressed, plus many more serious deficiencies in the operations of MVMH.

The format of State site reviews is partially at fault for the mismanagement that has been going on for years at MVMH. The fact that site reviews have failed to correct many long-standing serious problems would give credence to this belief. The first problem with the format concerns review of case files. The State cannot possibly review all of MVMH’s case files, so it selects a small number of files and notifies MVMH days in advance which files the State will review. That leaves the door open to fixing of deficiencies in those few files before the site review team arrives, thereby giving the State a false impression of the overall operation. Second, during the site review the State does not interview employees individually but rather in a group, an environment not conducive to eliciting candid remarks, especially if employees are working for a boss who they feel will make them pay for any criticism of the administration. And third, the State has not been in the practice of interviewing former employees or former clients from whom the State is more likely to receive candid comments.


MVMH deals with some of Baker County’s most vulnerable citizens. They need someone to advocate for them. I encourage all concerned citizens to make their views known to Baker County Commissioners Fred Warner, Tim Kerns, and Carl Stiff.

Gary Dielman

Friday, February 23, 2007

Baker County Media: No Connection Between War and Want

Asking for Peace in Iraq, January 27, 2006, Baker City, OR

Here is a little humor from my friend Leslie:

Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and George W. Bush went to a fitness spa for some fun. After a stimulating, healthy lunch, all three decided to visit the men's room and they found a strange-looking gent sitting at the entrance.

He said, "Welcome to the gentlemen's room. Be sure to check out our newest feature, a mirror that, if you look into it and say something truthful, you will be rewarded with your wish.

But, be warned: if you say something FALSE, you will be sucked into the mirror to live in a void of nothingness for all eternity!"

The three men quickly entered and upon finding the mirror, Bill Clinton stepped up and said, "I think I'm the most intelligent of us three," and he suddenly found the keys to a brand new Bentley in his hands.

Al Gore stepped up and said, "I think I'm the most aware of the environmental problems of us three," and in an instant, he was surrounded by a pile of money to fund his next Presidential Campaign.

Excited over the possibility of finally having a wish come true, George W. Bush looked into the mirror and said, "I think...," and was promptly sucked into the mirror.

Baker County Media: No Connection Between War and Want

Jayson Jacoby, a gifted writer/reporter for one of the local papers—the Baker City Herald—had an article in last night’s paper about Wallowa-Whitman “Recreation sites under review for possible changes.” In a sidebar under the heading “WHAT HAPPENED”, Jayson says that the Forest has proposed changes to “more than half the 135 sites” including “closing campgrounds to increasing fees.” The thing is, that if you check the back page (10), you will find that something else more important HAPPENED first: The Wallowa-Whitman “budget’s been shrinking for the past few years, at a rate of about 5 percent to 10 percent per year….”

Why is that you ask?

In an Op-Ed reprinted from the (Bend) “Bulletin” titled “Wages or Classrooms,” a complaint was made we need to find more money for schools because we “can’t seem to build classrooms fast enough to meet demand.” The Op-Ed notes that the State is looking at three possible remedies:
1) System Development Charges for schools [Not mentioned in the Op-Ed: This will require a change to ORS 223.229(1) and City Councils across the state should consider a resolution asking that ORS 223.299(1) be amended to add police, fire, library, and school facilities to the list of capital improvements for which local jurisdictions may collect impact fees and system development charges.].
2) “[E]limination of the double majority requirement for tax hikes.”
3) “[U]se of school capacity as an excuse to suspend growth.” [Excuse??? Sounds like a rational response to me.]

The Op-Ed then goes on to NOT discuss those options at all, but instead spends the next several hundred words blaming the problem on unions (You mean we still have some???) and on the prevailing wage law in Oregon. The latter guarantees the payment to workers on public projects a fair living wage--one a person can at least attempt to raise a family on. This, of course, is the kind of retrogressive nonsense that is driving the ongoing race to the bottom for the wages and working conditions of American workers.

The editorial does however raise an important question. Where CAN we find money for schools? This question relates to the former question about budget cuts in the programs of Federal agencies. One solution that would help for schools is to change the law to allow System Development Charges for schools (as well as Police and Fire). But what would be a more comprehensive solution? I think I have an answer! END THE WAR!!!!!!!

The war in Iraq has cost the lives of 3,151 Americans and the war is responsible for the deaths of over 650,000 Iraqis. It has cost us $367,888,323,114, and will pass half a TRILLION dollars before too long.

According to the National Priorities Project ( www.nationalpriorities.org ) the money already spent on the war from Oregon taxpayers alone could have built 255 elementary schools in Oregon and provided a fair living wage to Oregon workers for building those schools. Alternatively, we could have built 13,420 affordable housing units.

Isn’t it about time the media quit blaming American workers and other scapegoats for our problems and started making the true connection between our deteriorating conditions at home and the trillions of dollars our government has wasted on wars and military spending over the last decades?

Some reminders from former President Dwight David Eisenhower in 1961-Think of George W. Bush while reacquainting yourselves with these words:

“We will bankrupt ourselves in the vain search for absolute security.”

“Understandably proud of this pre-eminence, we yet realize that America's leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment.”

“Any failure traceable to arrogance, or our lack of comprehension or readiness to sacrifice would inflict upon us grievous hurt both at home and abroad.”

“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

And Lastly, from a speech before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, April 16, 1953

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

Seems like the newspaper editors and publishers right here in Baker County might want to revisit that great man’s wisdom too.


Thursday, February 22, 2007

Refugee in Oregon, Neo-Feudalism, the Timber Industry and Wonderful Winnie Weller Smith

[Before diving into the untold stories and various complaints, I thought it might be best to give a little background information about what North East Oregon looks like to an outsider, this one in particular.]

Refugee in Oregon, Neo-Feudalism, the Timber Industry and Wonderful Winnie Weller Smith

There is an old saying that went around among my college friends back in the late ’60’s that went like this: “Wherever you go, there you’ll be.” It was a reminder that we bring much to our encounters with the world around us and the people in it, and that even if we head out for greener pastures, our experience there will be greatly affected by the baggage we carry around with us, both good and bad. To me the aphorism lacked balance and seemed to place too much responsibility on the individual, so I responded with “Yes, and wherever you go, there they’ll be too!” People’s reaction to you depends as much upon their baggage as it does yours, and vice-versa.

When I left California nearly 8 years ago, I first landed in Prairie City, Grant County, Oregon. To paraphrase historian Hubert Howe Bancroft’s statement of his feelings about his first visit to Utah in the 1800’s, I thought I had left America and entered a foreign country. Well not exactly, but the place did and still does have sort of a neo-feudal feel to it. Timber barons and cattle ranchers still pretty much run the place, i.e., Grant County, and they would kind of like to keep it that way despite the realities that point in a new direction. It is a place stubbornly mired in its refusal to embrace the changes brought on by the unsustainable exploitation of publicly owned forest resources for over a hundred year period. Many there refuse to face the truth that was so simply put by my late Prairie City neighbor, and dear friend, Winnie Smith. She was a wise and kind-hearted woman who grew up in the lumber camps of Idaho and Oregon during the timber heyday of the last century. One day while she was showing me pictures of logs at least as big around as an S-10 Blazer, Winnie told me the truth that was obvious to anybody on the outside looking in, but which was not so clearly seen or admitted by those who were heavily invested in an unsustainably managed and changing industry. Winnie told me that the reason the timber industry is failing is that they had already cut down most of the big old trees in the Blue Mountains and that the ponderosa pines here in droughty Eastern Oregon grow about as fast as a lichen on a rock.

I’ll leave the rest of the Grant County tales for another day, but my relationships there were generally not enhanced by the fact that I was, and still am to some degree, an environmental activist working on grazing issues in a place where there are far more cows than people.

Above, or nearby, assuming I can figure out away to get them on here, are some pictures of what life was like for my friend Winnie (photo circa 1944), including those big old logs hinting at what the forest used to look like.


Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Welcome to Baker County Blog--A Work In Progress

This blog is being established to report on the more cryptic and darker side of the goings on here in Baker County, Oregon--the stuff the papers either refuse to report on, or the events that are warped by personal and often self-serving distortion when they do. Included here will also be periodic reports on citizen participation at Baker County Commissioner’s meetings and Baker City Council meetings—participation that our elected officials like to ignore completely, or testimony which is not reported on accurately in the meeting minutes. Some of the things posted here will be written by other ordinary Baker County citizens and will reflect their own realities and experiences here in Baker County. Perhaps over time we will see what this culture looks like and hopefully a clearer picture of the power structure and the powerful in Baker County will emerge, along with the methods that are used to maintain that power. I hope to present an honest and truthful account of the other side of the story here in Baker County, because the “official” accounts in the papers or meeting minutes, or from the Chamber of Commerce, often do not tell that side of the story, but rather just serve the powerful interests that run this pretty little plantation out here in north east Oregon.

There are a few stories waiting in the wings, such as the mismanagement of one of our County supervised health agencies, and attempts by the papers and elected “leaders” to bury citizen input on issues like Oregon Measure 37 and growth (System Development Charges and the like), but as I am out of time on this very first day of the blog, they will have to wait.

There are many aspects of blogging and page layout that remain a mystery to me so I plead for a little patience if you have found this page and noticed that it is without the usual bells and whistles. We are works in progress. Thanks for dropping by.