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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A fresh start for Health and Human Services

With the hiring of Dr. David Thompson as interim director in early September, the Walworth County Health and Human Services Department is off to a fresh start.

After leading a department embroiled in controversy, former director, Diane 'Dani' Maculan, resigned last month.

Controversy in the department had been brewing since late last year when some HHS staff members began contacting county board supervisors and the media to express their concerns about changes being implemented in the department.

Maculan was hired for her expertise in managing the finances of the department, and was charged with eliminating a multi-million dollar budget deficit.

On that score, county officials say she was successful. But in doing so, she rubbed many people the wrong way.

It's not unusual in the newsroom to field calls from people complaining about this or that government agency. In most cases, the allegations don't rise to anything more than individual disagreements.

In this case however, the drumbeat grew louder and began to boil over when County Board Supervisor Joe Guido called for Maculan's resignation last December.

That led to a contentious county board meeting in January in which Maculan was berated during a public hearing.

However, following that public hearing, the county board rallied around Maculan.

Left out in the cold was Guido, who was reprimanded by his fellow county board members in February for leaving a meeting early.

However, the controversy refused to die down. To its credit, the county board hired an independent fact finder to look into the agency.

What the subsequent report found didn't necessarily surprise anyone.

According to the report, there was a roughly $4 million dollar swing in HHS spending under Maculan-from a budget deficit to a surplus.

However Maculan's interpersonal skills and management style were criticized.

The report was significant because it was the first time that the county had officially acknowledged that the turmoil in the department was caused by something other than disgruntled employees resistant to change.

That was the last public chapter until Maculan's announcement of her resignation last month.

Are there lessons to be learned from the past year as the search begins for a new director? Let's hope so.

What we learned was that there is no simple and tidy process for managing a controversy like this. It wasn't pretty, but in the end, it worked.

Would the opportunity for new leadership have come about without the firestorm caused by Supervisor Joe Guido's vigorous and public pursuit of the issue? Most likely not.

Many of Guido's fellow supervisors didn't like how he went about it, but that doesn't necessarily mean he was wrong.

Looking ahead, the board has to make sure it doesn't throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Maculan's model for the Heath and Human Services Department appears to have merit. The budget issue was addressed and we didn't hear, at least in this newsroom, about any significant drop off in services-ultimately the reason the county is in the health and human services business in the first place.

The three-legged stool that the county board must now balance must be made up of a good people manager who can deliver the services our residents deserve within a budget the taxpayers can afford.

Searches are never easy, and there's no way of knowing exactly what you have until you have it.

But loaded with the experience of the past year, and the input from many who have a stake in the outcome of the department, county board members have the opportunity to not only move on from a difficult period but also make Walworth County a model for how we deliver services to those in need.

Post continued HERE

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