Grand jury report hammers Sonoma County Department of Health Services
For the third time in six years, a Sonoma County Civil grand jury blasted the county’s Department of Health Services.
This time, the subject was the department’s pandemic response.
In a section titled “Dedication Overcame Dysfunction,” the report, published in May, describes what jury members called “a long-term pattern of poor communication, lack of collaboration, staffing challenges, and low employee morale that predated COVID” at the department.
Among other specific flaws, it calls DHS unprepared for the budding health emergency because of staff vacancies, including the director of nursing position. It notes a power struggle between the DHS and Office of Emergency Services leadership teams early in the pandemic as well, and cites DHS’s failure to adhere to FEMA financial requirements.
The report also alludes to a lack of responsiveness by the department’s Human Resources office.
These shortcomings affected more than staff well-being. They “disrupted the emergency response to COVID,” the grand jury wrote.
DHS Director Tina Rivera addressed the report briefly on Thursday, pushing back against its characterization of her management style. She pointed out that she’s been director of health services only since March.
She joined the county health department in January 2020 as assistant director and stepped in as interim director in May 2021, after then-director Barbie Robinson quit for a job in Houston.
“I have built my entire career on collaboration and partnership, and I have an open door,” Rivera said. “It is always open. I was really disappointed in some of the things I read.”
This grand jury report arrived just as DHS was formulating its plan for reduced COVID services. And while that strategy may be warranted by the coronavirus’ shift to an endemic phase, it, too, brought complaints of poor communication.
Previous grand juries documented similar problems at the department.
The 2016-17 and 2017-18 juries both cast an eye to DHS and reached harsh conclusions about the department. The 2017-18 report stated that “ … professional communication was stifled by a culture of retribution and neglect which impacted the free flow of information. This led to an egregious lack of transparency.”
This fiscal year’s examination was prompted by a citizen’s complaint asking the grand jury to investigate the county’s COVID-19 emergency response, and the overall leadership and organizational climate within DHS. The jury conducted at least 24 interviews with county officials, past and present DHS employees, and other county staff who assisted with the COVID response, while also reviewing hundreds of public and private documents.
The jury members found much to like in the overall COVID program. They commended the county’s Emergency Operations Center for its quick response to the pandemic, noted the collaborative approach of county Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase (who reports to Rivera but has some powers that transcend the traditional work structure) and lavished praise on rank-and-file workers.
“We found an abundance of dedicated County employees who performed admirably and heroically,” the report reads. “ … A number of individuals contributed at an extraordinary level, working countless hours, sometimes without any additional compensation, and with minimal public recognition.”
DHS leadership didn’t fare as well.
“From our interviews, a common theme emerged of a top-down leadership style characterized by what one interviewee termed a ‘my way or the highway’ approach,” the grand jury report states. “Many interviewees said that top DHS leadership only wanted managers who agreed with them, and that there was a fear of retribution if they did not. … Interviewees used adjectives such as ‘toxic,’ ‘hostile,’ ‘chaotic,’ ‘dysfunctional,’ ‘desperate,’ and ‘fearful’ to characterize the resulting organizational climate.”
One soon-to-be-former DHS contract worker agreed with that assessment.
“There is such a vacuum of leadership,” said the displaced worker, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution as they pursue new employment.
One particular disruption cited by the grand jury was an early-pandemic power struggle between Robinson and the county’s Emergency Operations Center. The rift led to a decision by the county to have co-leaders in the overall COVID response, the report stated. After two months, the strategy shifted again and DHS was given ultimate authority.