"I am concerned," said Erie County Legislator Lynne Dixon (I-Hamburg) about the lack of new leadership in Social Services and Mental Health, two of the most important departments in county government when it comes to dealing with the numerous issues affecting the most vulnerable people among the nearly 920,000 residents of the county.
"We need somebody in place to address those issues and make sure we're on course to correct the problems we have seen in the past," she said in a telephone interview this week. County Executive Mark Poloncarz has yet to submit candidates for the key positions to the legislature and they are currently being filled by a holdover and an acting commissioner.
According to the county executives press team, the search is still on for a new Social Services commissioner to replace Carol Dankert-Maurer who has remained on the job and was pulled by Poloncarz as his candidate for Mental Health commissioner when it became clear she didn't have the support of lawmakers. Poloncarz had expressed strong support for her new position to head Mental Health but he backed off after it became clear lawmakers didn't feel she was up to the task.
Dankert-Maurer had come under fire in recent months as a result of the growing death count and other issues affecting the care and oversight of young people in Erie County under the watch of Child Protective Services.
Dixon and Legislature Chairman John Mills have been particularly outspoken about the failures of the department under Dankert-Maurer in overseeing the most vulnerable of county residents, young children.
Dixon recently summed up the frustration, saying "there have been five deaths over the past four years, there have been 33 disciplinary actions, five firings, nine suspensions and still we have issues."
Dankert-Maurer has added new positions to Child Protective Services in response to the criticism but while Dixon said the Health and Human Services Committee has received monthly updates she would like to see more action soon at the top with the right people in place "so we know whether the changes are working" to prevent the untimely death of another child under the county's watch.
Peter Anderson, the county executive's press aide, said Monday in an email that qualified applicants are now being interviewed for the Social Services job now that the application period has closed (Feb. 6).
It is more of the same at the county's Department of Mental Health which has been without a real commissioner since last September.
The department, currently under the control of acting Commissioner Deborah Goldman, oversees mental disability services for over 48,000 residents each month.
Anderson said posting for applications for the Mental Health position closed on Feb. 13 and the review process for the applicants is now underway.
Poloncarz has another top position to fill on his staff following the recent departure of Deputy County Executive Richard Tobe who was tapped by Gov. Andrew Cuomo for the job of director of upstate regional development.
Currently, the deputy job is being filled by veteran political operative Maria Whyte who is also the commissioner of Environment and Planning.
For the county executive, who is gearing up to run for a second term in November, he will likely face mounting political pressure from his opposition to fill the key Social Services and Mental Health positions or risk the political consequences of another unfortunate incident in those sensitive areas where strong and documented oversight is his best defense. Right now, he seems vulnerable.