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Mecklenburg Interim Health Director Starts While Still A Consultant To County

alma_harris.jpg
Charlotte Observer

The new interim health director for Mecklenburg County starts work Monday. Alma Harris takes over for Marcus Plescia. He resigned after his leadership was called into question when it was revealed that the agency had failed to timely notify nearly 200 women about abnormal Pap smear results. But the hiring of Harris to a $20,000 a month position is drawing scrutiny.

Alma Harris spent 23 years as health director at county health departments in North Carolina. She was awarded North Carolina Health Director of the Year in 2011.

“She’s a big picture thinker, she’s an innovative thinker, she’s an outside of the box thinker,” said Lynette Tolson.

Tolson is director at the North Carolina Association of Local Health Directors. She said that Harris, who goes by "Gibbie," made great improvements at the Buncombe County health department. Harris led the department as it merged with a social services agency – which is what Mecklenburg County is trying to do.

"Gibbie was able to come in, calm her staff and continue to do good public health work," Tolson said. "She won accolades nationally. She was recognized for programs she was doing in Buncombe County."

She left Buncombe County two years ago and formed a health care consulting firm. And one of her clients is Mecklenburg County which is paying her $25,000 to conduct a review of the health department. That’s why Commissioner Pat Cotham is troubled by Harris’s hiring.        

“It just kind of gave me the heebie jeebies,” Cotham said.

Harris will be on the job for at least six months, possibly longer, depending on when a permanent director is hired.

“I’m not going to use the words 'conflict of interest' cause that’s a legal term,” Cotham said. “It gave me pause and made me concerned about will the report we receive from them, will it be well received by the board and by the public.”

Cotham says at the very least Harris’s company should have finished its report before she was hired.

“I just don’t know that this is a good step at this time when the report is not done,” Cotham said. “To hire one of the consultants supposed to be neutral and objective and now suddenly one of the persons is an employee of the county manager.”  

Commissioner Jim Puckett shares Cotham’s concerns. County Manager Dena Diorio stands by the decision to hire Harris. She said by e-mail Harris already has knowledge of the department, its issues and the staff. As for the report, Diorio says it will be presented at a July 11 audit review meeting. A county health department spokeswoman said Harris was not available for an interview. Upon her hiring Harris had a statement saying.

“There are a lot of things Mecklenburg County Public Health is doing right. And there are also a lot of things we can do better,” she said. “I am confident we can identify and implement the changes necessary to better serve our customers and restore public trust.”     

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