CMH Board Upholds Decision To Offer Interim CEO Top Post Amid Controversy
By Beth Milligan | April 22, 2022
A day after Grand Traverse County commissioners unanimously recommended that Northern Lakes Community Mental Health Authority (CMH) investigate the actions of the organization’s interim CEO Joanie Blamer – with commissioners expressing concern she was inappropriately lobbying board members to make her post permanent – the CMH board voted Thursday to go ahead with offering Blamer the CEO role.
The vote capped several weeks of controversy at CMH over the hiring of the next leader for the agency, which provides mental health services to Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Crawford, Missaukee, Roscommon, and Wexford counties. Following the retirement of former CEO Karl Kovacs last year, CMH board members undertook a months-long search process for a new CEO. Blamer, a leadership staff member who was promoted to interim CEO, was one of two finalists for the position along with Dave Pankotai, CEO of Macomb County Community Mental Health. Pankotai was ultimately offered the job, but turned it down over a salary dispute. The board then voted in early February to start the search process over.
However, at a subsequent meeting in which only 10 of the board’s 16 members were present, a surprise item was added to the agenda to offer Blamer the CEO position. The motion was approved in a 6-4 vote, with several members protesting that the move was inappropriate without the full board present. The vote did not outline a timeline or process for negotiating terms with Blamer, and Chair Randy Kamps held off extending a formal offer to her as controversy swirled after the meeting. At a follow-up meeting in March, the board voted 6-6 on a motion to rescind the offer to Blamer, with the tie vote causing the motion to fail.
Then, at this week’s Grand Traverse County commission meeting, Chair Rob Hentschel asked to add an agenda item to discuss concerns he had about Blamer’s interactions with CMH board members. He said Blamer was asking to meet one-on-one with board members, a violation of CMH board policy that states the CEO must interact with the board as a single unified whole through established formal channels and not communicate individually with board members. The only exception is when a board member requests data or facts from the CEO, according to the policy. Hentschel said Blamer’s actions constituted an “ethical dilemma,” and that because she hadn’t yet officially been offered the position or given a contract, she remains an interim CEO and is “using the platform of a temporary position to lobby with an unfair advantage against other candidates for that position.” Hentschel said it was “uncomfortable” to address the situation publicly, but that “the concerns are valid.”
Others agreed the situation was “problematic,” a term used by at least two commissioners, but hesitated to support Hentschel’s motion to request that the CMH board discipline Blamer. Commissioner Penny Morris, who sits on the CMH board, said she expressed concerns to Blamer about her desire to meet individually with board members, but Blamer told Morris she had consulted with the board’s parliamentarian and was told it was OK to do so. Hentschel dismissed that interpretation, saying CMH board policy was clear and the parliamentarian was only a board member assigned to that role, not an attorney. While Commissioner Betsy Coffia agreed there were “serious issues with the way the CEO hiring process has gone down,” she said that asking for disciplinary action without giving Blamer full due process would be “overstepping” the county commission’s role. Commissioners amended the motion to recommend that the CMH board “explore and address” the situation, a motion that unanimously passed. Commissioners also voted to recommend that the CMH board rescind its offer to Blamer and launch a search for a new CEO, both of which were agenda items at CMH’s board meeting Thursday.
At the CMH meeting, several board members strongly advocated for restarting the CEO search process. Kamps said Blamer would be “more than welcome” to apply for the position and could still ultimately be chosen as CEO, but that the board needed to “reset” and start the process over. Morris agreed, saying the controversy surrounding the hiring process to date “put a black mark on the organization and made us look unprofessional.” She added: “If anything needs a do-over, this one does…(the process) needs to be completely transparent and above board.” Board member Ty Wessell said that CMH was struggling with operational, governance, staffing, and client issues, as well as dissatisfaction from participating counties like Grand Traverse County, and needed a CEO that had board buy-in and could “lead this organization in the future to where we need to be.” Board member Al Cambridge added that he “didn’t want the record to show” that only six of 16 board members had chosen CMH’s next CEO, referencing the February vote to offer Blamer the position.
Other board members, however, argued that Blamer had been the runner-up for the CEO role, making it a natural move to offer her the position after the top finalist backed out. Blamer has been performing effectively as interim CEO and is ready and qualified to take over the role permanently, those board members argued. When a motion was made to rescind the offer to Blamer to become the permanent CEO, it narrowly failed, with seven board members in support and nine opposed. With the decision upheld to offer Blamer the job, Kamps said it was pointless to address several other items on Thursday’s meeting agenda, including restarting the search process, hiring an outside firm to guide the process, and setting a search budget. The board instead cut the meeting short, going to public comment before sharing announcements and reports and adjourning.
Board members will still need to formally offer the position to Blamer and negotiate contract terms to make the CEO hire official. A timeline for doing so has not yet been established. Cambridge said he plans to make a recommendation in the future to change the board’s bylaws to require that a certain number of board members participate in major decisions like CEO hires, a move intended to help prevent future controversies.Comment