Questionable authority

“We ought not to be exercising authority we do not have, in my opinion.”

— Henderson County Manager David Nicholson

A troubling question arose at a recent meeting of eight county managers who are crafting mental-health reform in Western North Carolina: Do they have the authority to make a key decision? Or must they wait for a yet-to-be-appointed board — some of whose members will be care recipients — to help make the call?

The issue spotlights some of the competing interests involved as thousands of local care recipients wonder what will happen to their mental-health services under the state-mandated reform. Beginning Jan. 1, a new entity is supposed to start managing mental-health services for people in Buncombe, Henderson, Madison, Mitchell, Rutherford, Polk, Transylvania and Yancey counties.

Facing a Dec. 31 deadline to dissolve the Blue Ridge Center and lay the groundwork for the new system, county managers are under the gun to address a myriad of organizational, legal and bureaucratic details, such as what to do with patients’ medical records. At the same time, care recipients and their families are fighting for a say in what happens.

Earlier in September, mental-health advocates scored a victory when they learned that the attorney general’s office had ruled that the new entity’s governing board must include an equal number of seats for both county government and non-county representatives. On the proposed 16-member board, that would mean that a total of eight mental-health professionals, care recipients and family members will share the power with a total of eight county officials.

At the county managers’ Sept. 22 meeting in Asheville, the prevailing sentiment seemed to favor signing a “memorandum of agreement” presented by Blue Ridge Area Authority attorney David Matney. The two-page agreement states that the county managers’ committee plans to recommend that Blue Ridge Area Authority Area Director Larry Thompson be named director of the new local management entity (to be called Western Highlands) and that Blue Ridge Finance Officer Jack Parsons be named Western Highlands’ new finance officer.

With those assumptions in mind, the agreement sets out 10 specific points designed to “achieve a smooth transition” from the existing structure to the new one. In essence, the agreement states that the Blue Ridge Area Authority would provide staff members (including Thompson) to work for Western Highlands during the transition period until the new entity was officially launched. The agreement also provides for the Blue Ridge Area Authority to basically set up Western Highlands by hiring personnel, drafting new policies, negotiating with new providers, drafting a proposed operating budget, and working on obtaining licenses for new facilities to be operated by the new entity. The agreement would run out when Western Highlands began operating.

But then Henderson County Manager David Nicholson threw a wrench into the proceedings.

“I see no authority to sign this,” Nicholson declared. “The way I read the law, we’re not the board. And we’re making certain assumptions in here that I don’t believe that we have. Second point is, there has to be eight people added to the board. And we’re making assumptions out here for those eight persons, who may have different thoughts.”

As Nicholson spoke, longtime Buncombe County watchdog/mental-health advocate Jerry Rice nodded in agreement. (And in yet another sticking point, Rice and other members of the public have only recently been allowed entry to the managers’ meetings, even though the managers have been meeting with Blue Ridge officials since December 2001 to work on local mental-health plans.)

But Thompson warned, “We need to move expeditiously.”

And Matney observed, “At some point, you need to start telling staff, ‘You have a job Jan. 1,’ or they’re going to go find a job somewhere else.”

Nicholson, however, held his ground, insisting, “We ought not to be exercising authority we do not have, in my opinion.”

In yet another fuzzy area, it’s still unclear whether county staffers, rather than commissioners, can serve on the new board. But Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene noted that even if county managers can’t hold seats on the new board, the commissioners will still support the managers’ recommendations.

“They’re not going to put somebody on the board who is not going to ratify to make the system work,” added Matney. “You can change things later.”

Rutherford County Manager John Condrey, meanwhile, suggested that at least one of the eight non-county-government reps would probably go along with what the eight county-government appointees wanted, essentially giving them a voting majority anyway.

Assistant Buncombe County Manager Jerome Jones summed things up by saying that the memorandum of agreement has the managers’ “verbal blessing,” which will be formalized later.

The Buncombe County commissioners were expected to appoint their allotted members to the new governing board at their Oct. 7 meeting.

The county managers agreed to meet again on Monday, Oct. 20 at the Blue Ridge Center (356 Biltmore Ave. in Asheville). Meetings typically start at 2 p.m. and are open to the public.

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