Wednesday, January 26, 2011

El Paso, Texas, dissolves its MHMR board

From the El Paso Times:

El Paso Mental Health Mental Retardation is likely to get a completely new board March 1.

The county Commissioners Court voted Jan. 24 to dissolve the existing, nine-member board of the county's mental health authority and replace it with a seven-member board.

The vote comes amid ongoing controversy over the way MHMR is governed.

Most recently, the board voted last fall to beef up pay by as much as $127,000 to CEO Gary Larcenaire if he is fired or dies. It did so a month after the agency lost almost $2 million from local sources and braced for even deeper cuts from the state.

Larcenaire, meanwhile, is forecasting a loss by June of money to care for mentally ill patients in or near crisis.

"I absolutely believe we need a fresh crop of board members," County Judge Veronica Escobar said Monday.

Under the arrangement passed by the commissioners on Monday, they and the El Paso County Hospital District each would appoint three members to the MHMR board and a seventh would be appointed jointly. Two of the commissioners' appointees likely would be members of the Commissioners Court.

The hospital district will vote on the arrangement, known as an interlocal agreement, when it meets Feb. 8.

The commissioners will share governance of MHMR with the hospital district after the City Council voted to pull out of a three-way agreement earlier this month.

The commissioners voted 3-0 on Monday to release the city from the agreement without the required waiting period. Commissioners Anna Perez and Willie Gandara were absent.

But the vote to create a new board March 1 was more contentious. Escobar and Commissioner Sergio Lewis voted to make the move, while Commissioner Dan Haggerty voted against it.

All agreed MHMR could be better governed. The commissioners' three current appointees continue to serve even though their terms have expired and two of the hospital district's seats are empty due to resignations, said Gwen Pulido, an attorney for MHMR.

Haggerty said the commissioners have not been kept informed by their appointees to the MHMR board, and Escobar said the agency's day-to-day management needs more scrutiny.

"Over the past two years, there have been several issues over how they spend our money," she said.

But Haggerty wanted a bigger financial commitment from the hospital district. The agreement passed Monday requires only that the district and the county each give MHMR $100,000 a year. In practice, both entities have given MHMR far more in years past.

"That's a joke," Haggerty said. "One hundred thousand dollars isn't going to do anything."

But Lewis objected that any greater requirement might drive the hospital district from its role in MHMR, leaving the county to appoint all its board members.

To exert more control over MHMR, the commissioners agreed in principle Monday to appoint two of their own to the MHMR board -- most likely Haggerty and Perez.

There has been speculation that some on the Commissioners Court and at the hospital district want to use the new board to fire Larcenaire. Pulido said the existing MHMR board had that in mind when it voted in October to enhance Larcenaire's severance benefits.

"They wanted to insulate Gary from the politics," she said.

If Larcenaire is fired because the board does not like the job he is doing, his new contract entitles him to $255,000 in consulting fees.

Larcenaire didn't ask for the extra benefits and the MHMR board didn't offer them, Pulido and MHMR spokesman Rene Hurtado said. Instead, the increased compensation was the product of a "conversation" that grew out of Larcenaire's annual evaluation, they said.