SARATOGA COUNTY — Even as new questions are raised about his hiring last year, Saratoga County officials are standing behind embattled county Mental Health Director Michael Prezioso.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Matthew E. Veitch said all complaints against Prezioso and his management style have been investigated, and measures are being taken to replace psychiatrists who have left the county mental health clinic in Saratoga Springs.
“I believe that we have thoroughly investigated every claim, every allegation and all formal complaints and have taken action where appropriate to correct any deficiency or problem that was identified,” Veitch said in a statement late Tuesday.
But questions linger about the legality of Prezioso’s July 2014 appointment, which was made by the county Board of Supervisors rather than the Community Services Board, an advisory board of medical professionals and people with a connection to mental health and disabilities services.
State mental hygiene law gives the responsibility for appointing and removing a local mental health director to the Community Services Board in counties like Saratoga, which does not have a county charter.
However, in Prezioso’s case the appointment was made by the Board of Supervisors. The Community Services Board interviewed eight or nine candidates, and forwarded four names — including Prezioso’s — to the Board of Supervisors for consideration. A committee of supervisors and administrators then interviewed the candidates and made the recommendation, which the board approved unanimously.
“Dr. Prezioso clearly stood out to the hiring committee as the best candidate for the job,” said Veitch, who was on the selection committee. Prezioso is a doctor of psychology.
Jerry Luhn, an attorney retired from the state Commission on Quality Care and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities, said Prezioso’s hiring process appears to have violated the law.
“By my reading of the statute, it seems to be pretty direct and clear, it is a violation,” said Luhn, an associate council to the commission for 27 years.
He said be believes the law’s intention is to have those with a stake in mental health services appointing the director, “not necessarily political professionals.”
There doesn’t appear to be any penalty written into the mental hygiene law for violation.
In 2010 and 2011, then-state Sen. Roy McDonald, a former member of the Saratoga County board, proposed legislation to change the law and give hiring and firing responsibility to the Board of Supervisors. It was not approved by the state Legislature.
On Wednesday, Veitch acknowledged the issue.
“I’m not going to comment on whether it was done according to the law, but it’s the hiring process we have used in the past,” he said.
Veitch said the same selection process was used in hiring the previous mental health director, Hans Lehr, in 2011. Lehr, however, was previously the deputy director, and there was no controversy about his appointment. His retirement in early 2014 led to the vacancy that was filled by Prezioso, who began work last September.
Prezioso, who was previously director of in-patient services at the Capital District Psychiatric Center in Albany, has proven a divisive figure, with many employees objecting to his management style.
The controversy grew when it became public that an internal investigation by the state Office of Mental Health in 2008 found he has sexually harassed a female CDPC employee in 2006 and 2007.
Prezioso has denied the charge, and county officials said they are satisfied with his explanation of events.
In early June, three Saratoga Springs City Council members called for an investigation, citing the harassment finding and complaints from employees about the work atmosphere under the new department head.
Since early this year, three psychiatrists have left the county mental health clinic, which is located on South Broadway. At least one, who spoke in early June on condition of anonymity, said they left due to Prezioso’s “ineffective leadership.” The psychiatrists actually work for Saratoga Hospital, which has a contract with the county.
But according to county officials, the departures had to do with a general shortage of psychiatrists nationally, and the doctors are being replaced. The county has also hired a psychiatric nurse-practitioner to see patients.
The controversy, however, has led some supervisors to deflect responsibility for the hiring onto the Community Services Board — in error, according to that board’s chairman, Frank Arcangelo, who said it had no input in the final decision.
“I am aware that NYS mental hygiene statue grants the local CSBs greater administrative scope than our current (or historical) model would suggest, but this has not been the model adopted in Saratoga County for many years,” Arcangelo wrote in a June 24 letter to County Administrator Spencer Hellwig.
He said the Community Services Board is open to discussing changes in the board’s responsibilities in overseeing the department. The members of the Community Services Board are appointed by the Board of Supervisors.
Veitch said he didn’t know whether any changes would be considered in the future.
A representative of the state Office of Mental Health, which provides a large share of the Mental Health Department’s funding, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
The department has a $10.5 million budget, which pays for outpatient care, a day treatment and an alcoholism treatment program.
Another of the four finalists for director, Megan Johnson, joined the county earlier this month as deputy director of mental health, an appointment Prezioso has the authority to make. She was previously Warren County’s deputy mental health director.