Sonoma County quietly accepts resignation of mental health director

Michael Kennedy, who was director of Sonoma County’s mental health services division for nearly a decade before he went on paid administrative leave in early March, resigned from his position more than five weeks ago after brokering a settlement deal with the county governing terms of his exit.

The details of his resignation and the settlement deal came to light this week through a public records request filed by The Press Democrat. His job status had been in question since his leave began March 5, shortly after his superiors in the Department of Health Services backed off a controversial proposal to dramatically reduce its mental health and substance abuse staff by nearly 32 positions to partly close a $2.6 million budget gap.

Sources in the local mental health community, including county staff members, say Kennedy opposed many of those cuts. Kennedy’s boss, Barbie Robinson, director of the health services department, has blamed inaccurate revenue projections, increasing costs and declining revenue for the fiscal crisis.

But the settlement reached by Kennedy and the county prohibits either side from elaborating on such allegations or counter claims by Kennedy. It also curbs any investigation into his conduct on the job by the county and absolves him of any wrongdoing, stating that “there has been no finding of any misconduct on his part.”

Kennedy and Robinson ?declined to comment about the circumstances surrounding his departure and the negotiations that resulted in the settlement. It extends his paid leave to July 5, when Kennedy will be allowed to use any unused sick leave and then any unused vacation to “accrue service credit for purposes of retirement.”

He earned $176,820 in pay and $39,152 in benefits in 2016, according to county payroll records. His 2017 compensation was not made available this week.

Under the terms of the settlement, Kennedy, 62, will not be allowed to return to work for the county or any of its agencies or districts.

Kennedy’s division is proposed to shoulder the bulk of a proposed set of Health Services staffing cuts amounting to $8.2 million. Up to 107 vacant and filled jobs could be cut. The Board of Supervisors will take up those decisions in hearings starting next week.

Kennedy submitted his resignation letter on April 30 and Robinson responded in writing on May 11.

“This is to confirm that you have voluntarily resigned in good standing from the County of Sonoma Department of Health Services,” Robinson wrote in her letter.

Robinson declined this week to say who was responsible for the years of budget deficits in the county’s behavioral health division, which provides mental health and drug abuse services. In an email Thursday, she said responsibility for the shortfall was “a shared one” and that the county was taking full responsibility for it.

“There will be no finger-pointing or placing blame on any one person or department or division,” Robinson wrote.

Kennedy, reached by phone in Santa Rosa, would not discuss the specific reasons for his paid leave or resignation. He said that he started thinking about leaving his post shortly after the wildfires last October. That was when health services officials began signaling the need for staff and service cuts. But Kennedy would not say if his decision was directly related to the proposed cuts.

“It became clear to me that it wasn’t a fit anymore,” he said. “I felt like the department and the county was changing direction in how they were looking at the provision of services.”

At the beginning of his leave, the county appointed its top staff psychiatrist, Michael Kozart, as interim director to fill his post, signaling to many in the division that Kennedy was unlikely to return. In her email, Robinson said Kozart has been “instrumental” in helping to restore financial stability to the behavioral health division and “we don’t see a transition in his position anytime soon.”

Kennedy said Tuesday that he was proud of his 43-year career in behavioral health, which began as a counselor at Poughkeepsie Children’s Home in New York when he was 19.

He worked in San Francisco for 21 years, including eight years with emotionally disturbed children at Edgewood Children’s Center as a supervisor and training coordinator and 13 years developing and managing services for homeless youth and young adults at Larkin Street Youth Center.

In 2001, Kennedy landed a job with Sonoma County’s mental health division, working as a section manager for forensic and special programs. In 2008, Kennedy took over as county mental health director, replacing departing director Art Ewart. Kennedy became director of the behavioral health services division in 2010, when the county combined both its mental health and substance abuse services.

During his time at the helm for behavioral health, Kennedy sought to beef up community-based mental health and substance abuse services provided by local nonprofits. That effort is part of a decadeslong national trend aimed at reducing the cost of treating people in mental health institutions such as locked psychiatric facilities.

Kennedy said he’s proud of the work of county behavioral health staff, and his part in helping to build the local system of community-based care.

“I believe my job was to increase capacity and services to provide for better access and responsiveness for individuals with mental health and substance use disorders,” he said in an email.

Robin Bowen, executive director of Child Parent Institute, one of the county’s contractors for behavioral health services, said Kennedy was a strong supporter of mental health services.

“He was very concerned about the needs of the community,” she said.

Robinson has come under fire from local nonprofit executives in the wake of the proposed cuts to services, which would slash more than $10 million in county contracts.

She said her department’s mission is to continue providing the highest quality services to the county’s most vulnerable populations, including those who suffer from serious and persistent mental illness, providing them with food, clothing and shelter.

”Beyond this core set of services to our target population, we will endeavor to provide the highest quality services possible within available resources,” Robinson said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or On Twitter @renofish.

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