There comes a point in nearly every hot, irrational blow-up when those involved must surely, in a moment of clarity, set aside their rage and wonder how in the world things got so bad.
In the case of Mendocino County's Public Health Director, recently axed from her post after just 20 months on the job, spectacularly irrational forces were at work.
The axee, native northern Californian Barbara Howe, told me that she thought she had found the perfect job when she packed up her worldly goods in Santa Fe and headed to Mendo, specifically to the County’s Department of Public Health, which is part of the county’s Health and Human Services Agency. But less than two years later Howe’s boss, HHSA director Tammy Moss-Chandler, has filed a temporary restraining order against Howe that awaits action this week in Superior Court in Ukiah.
Howe was summarily dismissed, she says, with nary a word from her boss, Moss-Chandler, or Moss-Chandler’s boss County CEO Carmel Angelo, or from a county HR professional presumably charged with properly carrying out the details of Howe’s abrupt termination. Adding insult to injury, Howe’s ID badge photo was blown up and made into wall posters now hanging in HHS break rooms for all to see. The poster text urges employees to call in the gendarmes tout de suite should Howe appear on the premises. Howe calls these her “Criminal Wanted” posters.
Howe has decided not go gentle into that good night.
“They’ve criminalized me?” she asks, incredulously. “I didn’t do anything wrong.” Howe told me during our interview that she has to set the record straight on what really happened to her. “I have a solid reputation and I earned every bit of it,” she said, adding that if she doesn’t find another job within 180 days she’ll lose her pension. ”There may be a lawsuit out of this if I can’t find another job,” she said. Howe sent me descriptions of the many programs and activities she said she’s most proud to have accomplished with her co-leader, Dr. Gary Pace, who resigned in protest the day after Howe was fired.
So how did it come to this? How did these professionals charged with protecting the county’s most medically vulnerable end up so publicly toe-to-toe, culminating in a TRO (more common to warring spouses than to co-workers), a TRO initiated by the boss, no less?
Looking back with the clear vision that hindsight provides, Howe said that in a meeting early on, she challenged county CEO Carmel Angelo’s decision to give the Sonoma County-based ambulance administration people the boot. “I was new and didn’t know that you can’t question the Evil Queen,” Howe said. “I felt like Snow White.” Howe said she thinks that professionally disagreeing with Angelo in a meeting – she was, after all, a department head — planted the seed in Angelo’s mind that Howe might not be squarely on board to serve as her personal rubberstamp. “If you don’t kiss her ass you get canned,” Howe said.
Howe said things didn’t spiral downhill to the TRO level in one fell swoop. For her first year, Moss-Chandler was off on a fire/disaster recovery assignment and Howe reported to former director Anne Molgaard, who Howe said was nothing but kind and supportive of her during that year. Molgaard has herself apparently been spirited away out of HHSA for murky reasons unknown to me or the public. Employees just seem to get disappeared a lot in that county agency: here today, gone tomorrow. Poof!
Howe told me that Moss-Chandler officially fired her for “committing county resources without authorization,” in this case four generators Howe promised to the county’s regional centers (following an inter-agency assessment Howe says she initiated) in case of emergencies— generators that, incidentally, had already been acquired with state emergency funds and were stored, awaiting placement, in a shed in Howe’s backyard.
Howe, who said she’s used to working independently and is unaccustomed to being micromanaged, said news of “Generatorgate” (my term) got back to Angelo. “The Evil Queen on her throne said ‘I’m the only one who can speak for the county’,” Howe said. “My instincts said, ‘Shield up and don’t turn around’” (presumably to avoid getting stabbed in the back).
Then came the war of the text messages, laid out verbatim in stark supplemental exhibits in the TRO Moss-Chandler recently filed against Howe. In the first few Howe beseeched Moss-Chandler to at least tell her what she had done to deserve getting fired – all apparently to no avail, though Moss-Chandler did, according to Howe, bring up Generatorgate in three texts. Other than that, “My bosses never called me,” Howe said. “They didn’t even have the decency to have a conversation with me.”
Now, anyone who has worked with health professionals knows that in the modern way of assessing overall health, one’s mental state can be just as lethal to one’s physical state as a more measurable physical threat like, say, smoking three packs a day. Howe is clearly one of those health professionals who believes passionately in this mind/body connection. It was this belief, Howe said, that prompted her to caution Moss-Chandler, in a text message, against “spreading Carmel’s poison” throughout the organization, further predicting that failure to do so could ultimately result, for Moss-Chandler, in serious stomach problems, even ”cancer of the stomach.” This exchange in turn led to Moss-Chandler’s improbable charge (and ultimately to her TRO against Howe) that Howe, with her “degree in science,” could be plotting to actually poison her, and that she therefore feared for both her own safety and the safety of her family.
Howe said the whole subject came out of a conversation about dis-ease [sic]. “I just pointed out that her own behavior will affect her health — lying to people, spreading Carmel’s poison, it can make you sick,” Howe said. “I meant her no harm.”
Howe said that though she’s worried about what the future holds, she tries to keep it in perspective and is already applying for other jobs. First up is to get the TRO lifted since she said it could hurt her with future employers. She also said that at her court hearing she plans to pursue the improper handling of her termination, sans last paycheck, severance, COBRA notification, and other details she said are required by law.
Near the end of our interview, Howe told me that several months ago Moss-Chandler gave her and her colleagues copies of The Thin Book of Trust; An Essential Primer for Building Trust at Work, one of thousands of motivational books in the highly profitable “make your employees productive and happy” industry. I slogged through 20 or 30 pages before tossing it aside; I’ve read dozens like it. And I can’t recall even one revealing the simple truth: You’ll never get trust and respect from forcing your employees to read a book or attend a slick lecture. You have to earn it the hard way, every day, through your own actions.
Howe said there was a group discussion after everybody read the book, led by a paid facilitator. “Your taxpayer money at work!” she said.