Orange County has been running into challenges getting qualified people to apply for mental health director, and has now extended the application period in the hopes of attracting more candidates.
The troubles in filling the deputy director job – who oversees 1,000 employees – is related to concerns about how the Health Care Agency is being run, according to people close to the agency.
The agency’s director, Clayton Chau, didn’t answer a message asking if that’s true.
The job – officially called the deputy agency director for addiction and mental health services – oversees those services and hundreds of millions in annual spending.
The opening was posted online in August, to replace Jeff Nagel, who’s preparing to leave the position.
But weeks later, there were not enough qualified candidates who had applied.
That prompted the county to extend the application period for several more weeks, to late October.
“After reviewing the initial pool of applicants for this vital position, it was determined that extending the recruitment period would increase the number of candidates and increase the competition for the position,” county spokeswoman Molly Nichelson said in a statement.
She called it “a standard practice,” while declining to answer any questions about how many qualified people had applied.
Nichelson and Chau also declined to answer questions about whether Chau had a preferred candidate, and whether he suggested or pressured staff to consider particular applicants without following the county’s usual human resources process.
Chau’s only answer was to note that “there is an HR process at the County. And, this is a Board [of Supervisors] appointed position.”
The difficulties in filling the mental health job comes amid a wave of high-level departures at the Health Care Agency, which is now led by Chau and second-in-command Margaret Bredehoft.
Concerns also have been raised that people hired into high-level positions at the health agency during the pandemic don’t have sufficient public health experience and education.
And, officials are eyeing the likelihood of even more high-ranking vacancies – which reportedly is prompting yet more caution among potential candidates about applying for vacant positions, according to a person close to the agency.
Numerous people close to the county say Board of Supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do is trying to move Chau over to CalOptima, the county’s multi-billion-dollar public health insurance for low-income, disabled and elderly residents. Both have declined to comment on those reports.
While the mental health director is “appointed by the Board of Supervisors,” according to the county job posting, one supervisor said she hasn’t been told about what’s happening.
“Nobody has involved us. I have no idea what’s happening over there,” said Supervisor Katrina Foley when asked Wednesday about the challenges in filling the position.
The county is running into problems filling jobs all over the place, she added.
“Every department is having trouble hiring in all of the vacant positions. So I don’t know that it’s specific to [the Health Care Agency] and anything specific to that department, it’s just that there’s a shortage of employees across the state,” Foley said.
The mental health director position, in particular, is crucial at the county, she noted, and includes overseeing mobile crisis response teams, homeless shelter programs, and other addiction and mental health services.
“It’s a lot. So it’s going to take a certain kind of person,” Foley said.
A wave of health directors and officials across the nation have left their posts during the pandemic, especially when faced with threats to their safety after issuing mask mandates.
Orange County’s former health officer was among them.
Dr. Nicole Quick abruptly resigned last year after anti-mask activists read her home address aloud at a public meeting and showed up to her house with a banner depicting her with a Hitler-style mustache.
County CEO Frank Kim and Supervisor Don Wagner disputed the notion that it’s been a struggle to fill the mental health director position.
“I don’t agree with the characterization that the recruitment is a struggle,” Kim said in a text message.
“We started the recruitment early to give the county time to thoroughly search for the best candidate. Dr. Nagel has been an outstanding leader, implementing innovative community-based programs,” such as at the Be Well mental health campus at Anita Drive, he added.
“He will not be easy to replace, but I am confident that the county will identify an outstanding candidate, Kim said.
“We are looking for the best person for the job,” Wagner said in a text message.
“The job is complicated and difficult, requiring care in the search and a special candidate willing and able to do that job,” Wagner said.
“I expect we will find that candidate, one who has the full confidence of the whole board and a passion for the men and women he is charged with helping us to serve.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.