Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare

The board chairwoman at Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare has resigned, explaining that the performance of the board and the mental health agency no longer aligned with her core values.

Debbie Morrow informed Clatsop County on Friday that she chose to step down. Dr. Greg Sawyer, another board member, also resigned.

The resignations capped two weeks of public scrutiny and internal unrest after the board placed Amy Baker, the executive director, on administrative leave in late December. Several managers and directors on the mental health agency's leadership team were startled by how the board handled the situation, and county leaders complained about a lack of transparency.

Morrow was aware of the criticism, which was mostly directed at her role, but she said it did not influence her decision to resign.

"It is never easy as a board member to make decisions like this, especially when we believe so much in the mission of this agency, and we believe in the work, and we believe in the staff," she said. "And, most importantly, it is such a needed service for our community. Both Greg and I remain hugely committed to the agency."

But, she added, when "how an agency is performing, how a board is performing, doesn't align with your core principles, your core values, your morals, your ethics, your integrity. That is when, as a board member, you have to make that difficult decision."

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Debbie Morrow

Debbie Morrow

Morrow is the executive officer of the Clatsop Association of Realtors and the chairwoman of the Warrenton-Hammond School Board. She has been active in a range of education and social service issues on the North Coast.

Monica Steele, the interim county manager, said the board resignations were concerning. The county has long contracted with Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare for mental health treatment, a critical responsibility, but county leaders have often been exasperated by the agency's management difficulties.

"To me, it's just more concerning in the sense that we just want to make sure that continuity of services are being provided," Steele said.

With the board chairwoman resigning, and the agency being run by Ben Paz, the interim executive director, in Baker's absence, there is a question about leadership. Lt. Kristen Hanthorn, who leads the Clatsop County Sheriff's Office Parole and Probation Division, is the new board chairwoman.

"I just want to make sure that everybody is able to do their work and that we can see things kind of resolve themselves in a positive manner," Steele said.

Baker is in discussions with the board about her future, sources say. The reason behind her leave has not been publicly disclosed, but the board did order an investigation.

Steele has also asked the Oregon Health Authority to investigate an incident that happened at the crisis respite center in Warrenton in December after the mental health agency's board declined to provide the county with information. The agency operates the respite center.

Several of the agency's top managers and directors had sent a letter to the board expressing their strong concern with how Baker's leave was handled, along with a follow-up letter that raised questions about the process and the potential impact on the agency's standing.

Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare, a private nonprofit, has made strides toward improving its reputation after three top administrators resigned in 2016 amid management turmoil and legal problems.

A statement circulated among key staff, forwarded to The Daily Astorian, said Morrow's actions were the reason for the agency's instability.

"The staff at CBH have spent the last three years working to repair community relationships and reinstall faith in our ability to provide quality, organized and responsible care to our consumers," the staff letter to the board said. "This disregard for the organizational structure and the lack of clear communication has resulted in fear within our staff, reignited community skepticism and created overall instability within the agency."

The timing of the board shake-up and management uncertainty is potentially damaging to Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare's long-term future. The agency's contracts with the county expire in June.

The county has announced that it will seek bids for mental health and addiction treatment and for developmental disabilities. The partnership behind the crisis respite center may also put the contract to operate the facility up for bid.

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