It is extremely unusual for so many professional people to so rapidly leave an organization as has happened at the Saratoga County Department of Mental Health. To understand how this occurred I offer an account of the following events.
A Meeting From Hell
The staff at the County Department of Mental Health is represented by CSEA, a union representing many of the state’s and counties’ employees. In light of the problems at the Saratoga County Department of Mental Health , a meeting was held on May 22nd with a representative of the union. When the employees gathered in the break room, the former Medical Director who had transferred out of the Department joined them as an act of support. Also attending the meeting was a clerk, closely associated with Dr. Prezioso, who ostentatiously held her telephone up in an apparent effort to record the meeting. A number of people told her that they were not comfortable with her recording them. This person then dramatically left the room and shortly returned with two other members of the administrative staff . According to my sources, she then made a point of looking at each attendee and then wrote what was apparently their name on her pad. She then challenged the past medical director about being at the meeting. She became openly angry and loud, yelling at the past medical director, “You have no right to be at the clinic.” Pointing to another employee she told them “You better watch out (name withheld), you’re on our radar” and pointing to another, “and you better watch out (name withheld) you’re skating on thin ice.” When the doctor got up to leave, the clerk followed her out of the room, continuing to berate her in what my sources described as verbally abusive language and manner. This clerk then had the doctor escorted out of the building.
The scene was so ugly that following the meeting, a number of employees filed a grievance under the category of “work place violence/harassment.” The issue here was not that this person had physically endangered anyone but that she had created an atmosphere of intimidation.
Anyone who has ever worked in an office can imagine how stressful the atmosphere became. When employees are allowed to behave in a belligerent and aggressive manner they poison the environment for everyone. In this case, knowing that management supports the person acting this way, creates an even more difficult environment for people to work with each other.
The employees who had submitted the grievance received a memo from the county Director of Personnel, Margaret C. McNamara, dated June 24th. In a letter that could have been written for the television comedy “The Office” it said:
“After receiving your complaint, the county conducted a thorough (good to know it was thorough) investigation into the matter with the assistance of legal counsel. The county has concluded its investigation and has responded to the concerns you identified. Thus the county does not intend to take any further action at this time.”
There has been no sign that anything changed. No one has any idea of what action if any the county took.
Divide In Hopes Of Conquest
Peggy Lounsbury serves as president of the “Citizens Committee for Mental Health.” This is a volunteer organization that carries on a number of activities meant to address the pressing needs of the mentally ill. In June she requested that she be allowed to address the County Board of Supervisors regarding concerns over the growing problems at the Mental Health Department. Among the issues she cited were:
- Psychiatrists have left
- Problem of client access to psychiatrists
- Called on the supervisors to implement a plan to address these problems
- Encouraged the Board of Supervisors to find out why the staff are leaving
- In thirty years she had never heard of a level of unrest like this
- Something is terribly wrong
- No AED (Automatic External Defibulator)
- Lack of sufficient safety drills
- Many offices do not have locks
Following her comments the following staff from the County Department of Mental Health spoke:
- Sue Abbott, account clerk
- Carol Lyte, Director of Administration
- Carrie Abetamarco, typist
- Lori Snyder, senior typist
- Patricia Huber, clinical social worker
Their attendance at the same meeting that Lounsbury spoke at was quite a coincidence. These people made what can only be described as inflammatory accusations. They claimed the staff not Dr. Prezioso had created a hostile work environment. They claimed staff members were circulating documents and gossip and using the clients as “pawns”. They claimed staff members were telling clients to read the newspapers about what was going on. One theme was how the staff “used to have it easy.” The women claimed they were being badgered. They said that they had been dubbed “the gang of four.”
What a coincidence that these women show up at the same meeting at which Peggy Lounsbury had come to express concern about management problems at the department. The Board of Supervisors requires that people who wish to address them sign up at least twenty-four hours prior to the meeting.
My sources tell me that there were no communications to the department staff in general about attending the meeting. One wonders whether these people were on county time when they spoke. It is also interesting that they came to speak but Dr. Prezioso did not.
As someone who ran a not-for-profit and reported to a board, I offer the following observations:
- If my agency were the subject of criticism at a County Board of Supervisors meeting I would have asked to address the board and respond to the issues.
- If I knew that members of my staff were going to go to a meeting like this and attack other staff I would have urged them not to. I would not have told them not to go as they have a right to speak to their public officials. I would have urged them not to, though, because I would be acutely concerned about the impact making such criticisms publically would have on the morale of the office.
If I were on the Community Services Board, which is supposed to oversee the county Department of Mental Health, I would want to know whether Dr. Prezioso had played any part in their attending the meeting and whether he took any action to discourage their public criticism of their fellow staff members.