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Ousted DOH manager says ‘ideologues’ in charge

He started taking notes here and there after a round of firings in November, knowing it wouldn’t be too long before he, too, was asked to leave.

Last week Daniel Parker, operations manager of the Division of Environmental Public Health, finished a 2,900-word e-mail and sent it to the hundreds of state employees and contacts he had made over the last 14 years while working at the Florida Department of Health. 

The subject line read “In Praise of Public Service, and Farewell.”

The lengthy e-mail doesn’t go into detail about why there has been a purge of top-level employees in the department, but it rips into the administration of Gov. Rick Scott for dismantling the agency, suggesting that the changes were more about politics than sound public policy.

Parker's message says the decline in the department began under former Gov. Charlie Crist and has since “accelerated.” It says the agency is now being run by “idealogues.”

In an interview Parker said he thought just “for a bit” about whether to send the email before deciding “there wasn’t anything to fear.”

“These are just words,” Parker told Health News Florida on Sunday. “People make a living getting shot at.  This is nothing in comparison.”

Like many senior level staff who have left the department in the last seven months, Parker’s last evaluation was positive. “Mr. Parker is an innovator and big-picture thinker, an employee the department needs to survive and thrive,” reads a September 2011 evaluation.

The remarks were written by Lisa Conti, the former division of environmental health director, who was forced to resign in November. The actual evaluation was conducted by DOH Deputy Secretary Steven Harris, who rated Parker’s performance a 4.69 on 5-point scale.

Most of those who have left DOH in recent months have kept quiet, hoping to increase their chances of getting another state job. But Parker said those in public service have an inherent duty to speak out for what’s right and to stop unnecessary layoffs and firings without cause.

Parker, who is running for the Tallahassee City Commission, said he regarded his e-mail as "tactful and non-disparaging."

It describes a once-proud department that, he says, “has succumbed fairly quickly to neglect and erratic leadership.”  Parker suggests that the turnover level of executive leadership in the department over the last two years may surpass that of the last 10. The last 10, he said, could surpass that of the last 50.

“How did this happen?  We are victims of a false portrayal of public services as waste, coupled with a narrow view of what constitutes success in life.  A small handful of our colleagues put their own self interest ahead of the agency, a majority of us across the state played it safe and went silent, and leadership simply looks for and installs malleable followers,” Parker wrote.

“Whether it is a purge, a centralization of power, or what other nations call a jihad, the trends are always the same wherever it occurs.  When the majority of reasonable people put their heads down and keep quiet, bad things happen. “

He said the e-mail was sent to  hundreds of contacts, including top executives at the Department of Health. It was forwarded to countless others who have an interest in public health, environmental health and politics.

As of Sunday,  Parker said he had received about 20 e-mail responses, not counting instant messages and phone calls. None of the responses so far have been negative, he said.

He has heard from DOH employees at the county level and  two former Department of Health secretaries have reached out to him after receiving his e-mail.

“During my time at the Department, I felt very proud of the work your (division) did for the safety of the people of Florida,” said former DOH Secretary Bob Brooks, who was appointed by Republican Governor Jeb Bush in 1999.

Brooks left DOH in 2001 for the FSU College of Medicine. He now works at the University of South Florida, where he is a professor at the College of Public Health, and is running as a Republican for Florida House District 47 which includes Holden Heights, Belle Isle, Edgewood and Winter Park.

Another who e-mailed Parker was James Howell, the first secretary of the modern-day DOH.  “I am not sure I remember you,” Howell wrote, “but THANKS--God bless--speedy new fulfilling career. Hopefully in our (public health) family.”

 Florida’s health care, social services, public health, and regulation once were folded into one large state agency called the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS).  The giant agency was bedeviled by problems, and in 1996 was split into the Department of Health and the Department of Children and Family Services.

Initially, DOH was small, focusing on children’s medical services, county health departments and health planning. The department continued to grow over the years to include--at the behest of organized medicine--physician regulation and environmental health.

DOH has been under fire since 2008, when the Legislature began to show interest in paring it back and perhaps merging it with other  agencies. The Crist administration restrained most of those efforts, championed by Rep Matt Hudson, R-Naples.

In 2010 the Legislature passed HB 5311, which required DOH to conduct a comprehensive evaluation and review of its divisions and submit a report to the Legislature.  Gov. Rick Scott’s Health and Human Services Transition Team in December 2010 made a recommendation that the DOH, the Department of Elder Affairs (DOEA), the Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA), and the Agency for Persons with Disabilities (APD) be merged into a new agency. But bills that would carry that out weren’t considered in 2011.

In 2012 Hudson tried again with HB 1263, in original form would have severed the county health departments from the state. The push caused an outcry in the public health community and from the Florida Association of Counties among others.

After dropping the language that would have shifted public health responsibility to counties, Hudson garnered enough support to pass the measure, which merged divisions within DOH and reduced its scope. The law also orders that the tuberculosis hospital, AG Holley, close by Jan. 1, 2013.

Meanwhile, a long list of high level employees have resigned or have been forced out of the agency in the last seven months, including  former Secretary Frank Farmer. After less than a year on the job, Farmer unexpectedly resigned in March, citing his wife’s health.

DOH epidemology director Julia Gill abruptly resigned in early June, just before the state released an interim report on the Holley closing. Gill’s unit was responsible for the report.

DOH Deputy Secretary for Administration Gary Mahoney, his top bureau chief for finance and accounting, Matt Kirkland, and Rose Leah Gardner, all of whom worked together, also left their posts in the spring.

Former lawmaker and DOH Secretary Kim Berfield resigned from the state in December 2011. Prior to that, longtime Children's Medical Services Director Phyllis Sloyer was forced out and shown the front door by security guards.

Lisa Conti, who headed the department’s environmental health efforts, was forced out in late 2011, as were Jean Kline in emergency medical operations and Julie Meadows-Keefe, chief legal counsel.

Parker said he was advised by administration in May that he was going to be laid off. After reflecting whether to fight it or to remain hopeful that administration might change its mind, Parker said he decided to move forward and asked to go on leave and cash out his benefits.

He said he wanted to focus his efforts on his next goal, which is to get elected to the Tallahassee City Commission. He is running against former Mayor Scott Maddox.

“I asked for a certain date to go on leave and then I asked for it to be as quick as possible,” said Parker.

He got his wish. Within 24 hours of sending the e-mail Parker received a certified dismissal letter officially terminating his employment with the state.

Former Pasco Health Department Director Marc Yacht, who worked with Parker for years via phone calls and emails, called him a good civil servant who was dedicated to public health and environmental health.

“Civil servants like him have no agendas. They are just doing their jobs,’’ Yacht said.

He's pleased that Parker “broke the silence,” he said. “Everyone is scared to death but this needs to be said. I’m proud of him for that.”

--Health News Florida is an independent online publication dedicated to journalism in the public interest. Christine Jordan Sexton can be reached at 850-251-0358 or by e-mail. Questions, comments can go to Editor Carol Gentry at 727-410-3266 or by e-mail.