Embattled former health commissioner Dr. Melinda Rowe will leave the cash-strapped Lexington Fayette County Health Department on Aug. 31, ultimately completing 10 months of paid leave and receiving a letter of recommendation that praises her excellent leadership.
In a statement released Tuesday, health officials said Rowe "provided excellent leadership to her staff and achieved many accomplishments to better serve the health of the residents of Fayette County."
Rowe, who resigned as commissioner March 1, made $178,000 a year. According to the separation agreement requested by the Herald-Leader under the state Open Records Act, she will receive $84,163.48 in 13 installments. This amount will be deducted from her available leave time. She will receive a lump sum payment for any remaining leave on Sept. 16.
By the end of her leave, she will have been paid about $135,000, which includes vacation and comp time.
The health department has slashed 25 jobs in recent weeks in an attempt to deal with a $2.1 million budget deficit. The board is expected to approve a budget at a special meeting Monday, said Dr. Rice Leach, current health commissioner.
The recommendation of Rowe as an excellent leader is not reflective of the comments made by staff during a series of emergency public meetings earlier this year. During those meetings, employees described a hostile work environment, mismanagement of finances and low morale.
In her last three performance evaluations, under the category of "leadership," Rowe was rated as "consistently meets performance standards." The highest mark available under the leadership category was "exceeds performance standards."
Rowe and chief operating officer Rodger Amon resigned March 1. But Rowe's role in the department remained in limbo.
By setting a firm exit strategy, the separation agreement put an end to an issue "that has had a lot of people asking a lot of questions for a long time," Leach said Tuesday.
Leach, who signed the separation document along with Rowe and board chairman Dr. John Roth, declined to comment further about Rowe's tenure or separation.
In a letter to the Herald-Leader, Richard Getty, an attorney for Rowe, said: "Dr. Rowe has decided to move on with her life and join her husband at their home in Alabama. She is satisfied with the agreement and satisfied that it has resulted in her avoiding litigation with the Health Department."
In the letter, Getty said that Rowe had not been given the opportunity by the Health Department to rebut negative comments that have been made about Rowe in recent months. The letter pointed to positive statements about Rowe's work and community involvement in her most recent performance evaluation in 2010.
"She has over 30 years of leadership in community health, yet now faces an uncertain employment future largely because of the negative publicity concerning the departure from her employment with the Health Department," Getty wrote.
Geoff Reed, senior policy adviser for Mayor Jim Gray, said in a written statement that Gray has worked with the Board of Health, department employees and state officials to resolve problems at the department, and he appointed Leach to move forward.
"The issues are being resolved in a way that will mean better health care for our community under the leadership of Dr. Leach," Reed said. "The mayor recommended Dr. Leach to lead the department to total recovery, and he is doing that as quickly as possible."
"The administration will continue to monitor the overall progress of the health department, but will not engage in micro-managing its operation. It is neither appropriate, nor legal, to involve ourselves in the day-to-day administration of the health department, or to comment on specific personnel actions the board takes," Reed said.
Leach had cited his concerns with how Rowe was operating the department when he left in 2010, quitting as executive director of the Primary Care Center.
Under Rowe's leadership, the health department ran into numerous troubles, including a continuing investigation by the state Office of the Inspector General and the Kentucky Board of Pharmacy, and a federal review concerning an $11.7 million grant to build a new clinic that raised questions about how tax dollars are allocated to the department's Primary Care Center. The health department's finances are being reviewed by the office of State Auditor Crit Luallen.
Even as those issues linger, Leach said, he will "encourage people to accentuate the positive and find ways to cover the work that has to be done."
The health department has an operating budget of about $28 million, and in addition to handling restaurant inspections and flu vaccine campaigns, it serves about 17,000 patients in Fayette County through the Primary Care Center.
The public needs to be made more aware of the value of that work, Leach said. "We need to show Lexington what we are working on and what we can do with what we have."
Reach Mary Meehan at (859) 231-3261 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3261.