After weeks of public controversy, the two top officials of the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department are out of their jobs.
The resignations of Dr. Melinda Rowe, the county health commissioner, and Rodger Amon, the chief operating officer, were submitted Tuesday night at a meeting of the Board of Health.
Rowe will be replaced by Dr. Rice Leach, a former executive director of the health department's Primary Care Center who quit in March 2010. Leach told the Herald-Leader last week that he had resigned because of fundamental differences with Rowe. The Primary Care Center, a tax-funded operation that serves some 17,000 poor people a year, operates under the umbrella of the health department.
Rowe and Amon are on administrative leave as of 8 a.m. Wednesday. Rowe asked to be considered for a new, non-supervisory position as a public health physician. It is up to Leach whether she gets that job, said Dr. Steve Davis, deputy director of the state Department of Public Health. Davis was brought in last weekend by the board to find a resolution to ongoing conflict.
Amon is using accrued vacation time until April 29; his resignation is effective May 2. Amon, who makes $107,000 a year, started with the agency in 2006.
Davis said it's unclear what Rowe's salary will be if she gets the public health physician job. She has been with the department since 2004 and makes about $178,000 a year.
In a statement, Rowe said that Fayette County has made "great strides" in public health and that she had asked to be moved to the non-supervisory position "in view of recent events and to assure the focus of (the department) remains on the mission of protecting and improving the public's health."
Before coming to Lexington, Rowe and Amon had worked together in Louisville, where Rowe's tenure also ended in controversy when she was fired by the judge-executive in 2001 but refused to leave the job for several months until moving to a new position in Savannah, Ga.
Mayor Jim Gray has been highly critical of the management of the health department, which has 360 employees and an annual operating budget of more than $28 million.
His spokeswoman, Susan Straub, said Gray had no immediate comment Tuesday. Davis said Gray, who met with health officials during the weekend, was instrumental in getting the management issues resolved quickly.
Tuesday's meeting ended several weeks of emergency sessions filled with employee complaints about miserable working conditions, mismanagement of money and terrible morale.
Those meetings brought to light other problems as well.
The Office of Inspector General, part of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, and the state Board of Pharmacy have confirmed an ongoing investigation of the Primary Care Center pharmacy. Two primary care center employees have been reassigned because of the investigation.
The department also is searching for land to retain a $11.7 million federal grant for a new building after the original plans announced in October fell through.
Dr. John Roth, head of the board, did not return a call from the Herald-Leader after Tuesday's meeting.
But Davis said the problems went on too long to be ignored. The main issues of mistrust and miscommunication that appear to be at the core of the management problems apparently go back to the start of Rowe's tenure, when a consultant was hired to make suggestions on how to improve staff morale.
"When there is an issue of dysfunctionality it is the responsibility of senior management to step in," he said. "That wasn't done in a timely manner."
The long-festering issues came to a head in February when it was made public that Rowe had suspended William North, director of the Primary Care Center. That decision was challenged by the Primary Care Governing Council, which, because of the unique configuration of the health department, is the only group with the authority to remove the director.
Rowe never made public her reasons for North's suspension. But that act spurred the series of emergency public meetings at which staff, some of them in tears, described an intolerable working environment. North, who briefly appeared in the back of the conference room where the meeting was held last week, has been reinstated.
Convening at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, the board almost immediately went into closed session. In sharp contrast to earlier, tense gatherings of staff, in the 90 minutes the board met behind closed doors, the health department's Conference Room C took on an almost festive atmosphere. Staffers enjoyed snacks and drinks from a break room vending machine and gathered in small groups to talk.
The board came back about 7 p.m. and in quick succession read the recommendations about Rowe, Amon and Leach. Minutes later, it adjourned the meeting.
Leach's main source of disagreement with Rowe was the amount of independence needed by the Primary Care Center to operated effectively to receive federal money. Davis said he expects that issue will be at the top of the to-do list for Leach, a former state commissioner of public health.
Leach, Davis said, will return to the health department at 8 a.m. Wednesday. Leach did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday night.