Clatsop County will put contracts for mental health and addiction treatment and developmental disabilities up for bid as frustration builds with Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare.

The mental health agency was at risk of losing the contracts two years ago over management turmoil and doubts about patient care, but there was no interest from other providers. Monica Steele, the interim county manager, indicated Wednesday night that two providers — one from Washington state and the other in Columbia County — might compete to take over.

Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare

The announcement comes as Steele and county commissioners are frustrated by a lack of transparency.

In late December, the mental health agency's board placed Amy Baker, the executive director, on administrative leave, a decision that caught county leaders and some agency staff by surprise. Steele asked the Oregon Health Authority to look into an incident that happened in December at the crisis respite center in Warrenton after the board would not provide the county with information, she said.

"I don't feel like they're being very cooperative," Steele said after a county commission meeting Wednesday night.

Debbie Morrow, the chairwoman of the mental health agency's board, could not be reached for comment.

New contracts in July

Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare, a private nonprofit, is the county's longtime mental health contractor. The agency expanded over the years to also provide the county with addiction treatment and care for people with developmental disabilities. The contracts expire in June.

The county hopes to issue requests for proposals by the end of February and close the bidding by the end of March. After the bids are scored, county commissioners would review the proposals and award new contracts effective in July.

"CBH is welcome to, of course, apply, and encouraged to apply," Steele told county commissioners. But she said "it's good to make sure that we aren't being stagnant and just letting somebody assume that they will always receive a contract renewal."

The county — the local mental health authority — will likely demand timely access to information about staff and operational matters as a condition of the new contracts.

"My vision is to make sure that we won't have the same situation happening now, where we don't have any information whatsoever, and it's really hard to get anything out of them," said Michael McNickle, the county's public health director, who has oversight responsibility. "I want it to be, when we first start, the expectation is going to be that I'm a partner in this from the very get-go."

The partnership behind the crisis respite center — the county, Greater Oregon Behavioral Health Inc., Columbia Memorial Hospital in Astoria and Providence Seaside Hospital — will also likely put the contract to operate the respite center up for bid, Steele said. Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare has operated the respite center since it opened in 2016.

Several county commissioners are alarmed by the mental health agency's secretive approach given the history of management dysfunction and the life-and-death nature of crisis intervention.

Baker arrived in 2016 after three top administrators left and the agency was hobbled by staff defections and legal disputes. Many in the county believe Baker has made progress, although the agency still struggles with high turnover and administrative challenges.

"Am I the only person who sees an elephant in this room?" Commissioner Pamela Wev said of learning about Baker's leave from The Daily Astorian, rather than county staff.

Unsettling

The mental health agency's board sent an email to staff last week acknowledging that recent events have been unsettling.

The board said Baker was on administrative leave pending an investigation.

"The board has not assumed any wrongdoing because of this and nor should you," according to the email. "It is our duty as your board to assure the investigation occurs as thoroughly and quickly as possible and it would be inappropriate for any of us to comment further at this time."

The agency's board also defended the decision to name Ben Paz, the crisis services manager, as interim executive director. Several staffers on the agency's leadership team had signed a letter to the board with concerns about Paz's appointment, support for Baker, and questions about the process the board followed in placing Baker on leave, a source familiar with the letter explained.

"Our hope is you will keep your focus on what's most important right now, our clients and providing excellent services," the agency's board told staff.

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