Most people know about “the man without a country,” but few people know about the board without a county.
Technically, the Guilford County Health and Human Services Advisory Board is a part of Guilford County government; however, three years into the existence of the board, it’s getting zero respect.
The board is packed with prominent medical professionals as well as those with a great deal of social service experience – such as former Guilford County Commissioner Mary Rakestraw, who was on the Guilford County Board of Social Services for nine years – are all eager to contribute their expertise to county government. But a number of factors and events have severely marginalized that board and caused it to be almost entirely forgotten.
At the advisory board’s Sept. 27 meeting, board members attempted to find a path to relevance and they also discussed ways to get the board back on the county’s radar.
Health and Human Services Advisory Board Chairman Jean Douglas said at that meeting, “I think we need to be known in this county; it needs to be known that we exist.”
When the Guilford County Board of Commissioners merged the county’s Department of Social Services with the Department of Public Health three years ago, the commissioners did away with both the Board of Social Services and the Board of Health and took direct control of the two departments, which were consolidated into the new Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
Former DHHS Director Joe Raymond, the second most powerful administrator in Guilford County government when he held that position, attended DHHS board meetings and acted as a frequent line of communication between the commissioners and the DHHS board. But, in July 2015, Raymond resigned from his $160,000-a-year job with Guilford County – after holding it for one year – to take an even higher paying job with a think tank near Washington, DC.
After Raymond left, no one seemed to miss having a high-paid DHHS director, and no doubt Guilford County Health Director Merle Green and Social Services Director Heather Skeens are still pleased as punch not to have any administrator over them other than Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing, who took over some of Raymond’s duties.
Leaving that job vacant is one of the smartest cost saving moves the Board of Commissioners has ever made, but one thing Raymond did do was meet with the advisory board and convey their ideas to the commissioners. However, since he left there’s been no line of communication with the Board of Commissioners. The DHHS board eventually went from monthly meetings to quarterly meetings and, for the last two years, basically has been forgotten about.
As evidence of that, consider the following …
- The Guilford County clerk to the board’s office – the central depository of all county board meeting information – when asked the time and place of the advisory board meeting, had no idea about the time or location. (It turns out the meeting was at the county’s human services building on Maple Street in Greensboro on Wednesday, Sept. 27 at 4:30 p.m. – a highly unusual start time for any county board meeting.)
- Guilford County Commissioner Skip Alston, the Board of Commissioners’ liaison to the advisory board, showed up an hour and 10 minutes late for the Sept. 27 meeting – just as it was wrapping up. Alston stated he was unaware the meeting started at 4:30 p.m. He said he knew he would be 10 minutes late but had no idea he’d be an hour and 10 minutes late.
- Even though the board meets only four times a year, it has a hard time getting a quorum at those meetings. A “quorum” is a minimum number of board members needed to be present for a board to hold an official meeting and take action as a board.
- No one seems sure who is on the committee or what exactly is the number of members required for a quorum. The county’s website states there are currently no vacancies and there are six members of the board. Ten members showed up for the Sept. 27 meeting and there are 16 names of board members listed on a member sign-in sheet that was brought to the meeting.
- The DHHS board asked for time to speak at the county commissioners retreat in February 2017 but wasn’t granted that request.
At the Sept. 27 advisory board meeting, Douglas and other members spoke on the need for the board to get its house in order and make itself known to both county residents and the county commissioners. She said the board wants a presence on the county’s web page.
“We would like a public face on the county website,” she said, adding that she was “passionate” about the advisory board gaining more relevance and having more exposure.
The DHHS Advisory Board did take some actions at the Sept. 27 meeting. At the start of the meeting the group apparently did not have enough members for a quorum; however, as more people arrived, it was decided that by the end of the meeting they did.
At the meeting, the board approved the minutes of its March and June meetings, heard a report on the health department’s five-point action plan to improve public health, and it voted to make recommendations to the Board of Commissioners for that board to make to state legislators regarding rabies, lead posing and sewage legislation.
However, at the meeting, much of the discussion was about the purpose of the DHHS board itself and how it should proceed. By law, Guilford County must have a DHHS Advisory Board, but beyond that, not much is clear at this point.
DHHS Advisory Board Member Robin Lane stated that one key need was to determine how many members were on the board and how many constituted a quorum.
“For me, I’ve never understood clearly what a quorum was because we have members who are not in good standing,” she said. “Are they counted as absent or is the count reduced?”
Lane said the rules state that members who fail to attend at least 75 percent of the meetings shall be removed.
“I would like to point out that our commissioner liaison has not been present for the last three meetings,” she said, adding that she hated to put that out publicly.
When asked who that was, she said it was Commissioner Alston, and she pointed to his empty seat. Alston was given the job after former Guilford County Commissioner Ray Trapp stepped down in April to take a job at NC A&T State University.
Douglas said she had discussed membership questions with Guilford County Clerk to the Board Robin Keller and got “a very nondescript answer”
“Once a year they look at attendance,” Douglas said. “It’s once a year, not every meeting.”
Rakestraw said the board needs to coordinate its efforts with the county commissioners and the clerk to the board’s office.
“I would let them know that this is a concern to us, because it affects the function of the committee,” Rakestraw said.
Lane said one obvious starting point was finding out how many board members they had and who they were.
“I think we have a responsibility to conduct our business just as seriously as any other body would,” Lane said. “To me one of the basic features of that is that we know who is a member and who is not, and if you have not met the requirement of 75 percent, I don’t believe you can continue to call yourself a member.”
They board members also questioned if they could create a stricter attendance policy for their board than the county’s Board of Commissioners had implemented.
“I think you’re tippy-toeing into uncharted waters,” Rakestraw said.
They also attempted to find ways to improve board member attendance.
“If we said we were meeting monthly and then decided not to meet monthly, maybe we would [have less members in violation of the attendance rule],” Douglas said. She pointed out that missing one meeting a year puts a member at 75 percent attendance.
Board Member Bobby Baskin said, “We also need to talk about the function of the board, and what is our obligation. I mean, we’re not here just to say hello to each other.”
They also want to begin making presentations to the Board of Commissioners and discussed who would have that responsibility. Guilford County Manager Lawing said it could be the liaison, it could be chairman of this committee or it could be staff.
“We have flexibility,” Lawing said.
Douglas also said that board meeting was the best one ever because people showed up and were discussing things.
“This committee today, it was a breath of fresh air,” Douglas said at the end of the meeting. “We were meeting; we were discussing.”
Rakestraw said that at times in the past the meetings went way to long and that, “Everybody was giving their philosophy of life,” rather than sticking to the issues.
At the meeting, the board decided to invite the clerk to the board to a meeting to discuss some of the attendance concerns.
Though the county commissioners rarely hear from or mention the DHHS Advisory Board, Commissioner Hank Henning said this week that the commissioners are aware of the sort of in limbo existence of that committee and the many questions surrounding its purpose.
“The board is a requirement of state law, but nothing in the definition says what it does,” Henning said of the advisory board. “We had to form the committee when we consolidated the health and social services departments, but we consolidated those departments that so that we, the Board of Commissioners, could take back control of personnel and contracts.”
He said that, given that the main goal of consolidation was to take control of the departments, that fact alone means there are obvious limitations to the powers of the DHHS board.
The Board of Commissioners consolidation and takeover of the departments were largely the result of complete and utter disaster of the former Social Services Director Robert Williams, who was forced to resign three-and-a-half years ago.
Henning added that the current board offers a lot of talent that the commissioners have yet to figure out how to use.
“We have some great people on that board,” Henning said. “They are very competent but there is no precedent on what they are supposed to do. We’ve been racking our brains about how we do so. It has not been for a lack of trying. And I am open to ideas if they want to bring them to us.”
“That would be fantastic,” Henning said.