The county commissioners could be forced to accept the recommendations from the Lorain County Board of Mental Health and the Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services Board thanks to an amendment in the transportation budget.
The amendment by state Sen. Nathan Manning, R-North Ridgeville, changes the guidance that commissioners should appoint people recommended by the boards “to the greatest extent possible.”
His change now means the merged board and commissioners must accept the recommended appointees from the outgoing boards if they don’t make the appointments by a certain date.
The change will take effect July 3. If the commissioners — Matt Lundy, Sharon Sweda and Lori Kokoski, all Democrats — haven’t appointed board members by that date, the recommendations made by the Mental Health and ADAS boards would join the new board.
In March, the commissioners announced the merging of the two boards. Lorain County is the only county in the state that still operates separate addiction and mental health boards, so the changed wording affects only Lorain County.
The merging of the two boards will create a new 18-member board, with the commissioners being responsible for appointing 10 members and the state appointing the remaining eight. When the planned merger was announced, the commissioners said they wanted it completed by July 1.
Last month, the Mental Health and ADAS boards made recommendations to appoint a mix of existing members on each board both to the commissioners and the state.
On Thursday, Manning said he didn’t believe the amendment changed the law but rather clarified it.
Manning also said he was concerned about County Administrator Jim Cordes’ approach to the board’s appointments.
In a March article in The Chronicle-Telegram, it stated that Cordes said the commissioners are likely to appoint board members who have a philosophical thinking that’s close to their own philosophical thinking, saying, ‘‘That’s what appointments to board are supposed to be about.”
That comment didn’t sit well with some.
Both Manning and Lorain County Mental Health Board Executive Director Kathleen Kern pointed to the article as the initial reason for concern about the appointment process. After Cordes made his comments, Manning made the amendment and it passed in the transportation bill.
Kern said she spoke with Manning about the amendment’s language. She said she was “really taken aback” after reading Cordes’ comment.
Manning said he mostly spoke with Kern about the amendment. He also spoke with ADAS Board Executive Director Elaine Georgas, though he said it was about the general issue of the merger and not the amendment’s language.
Manning said he doesn’t believe the commissioners should decide the philosophy of the next board. The commissioners, in an interview at The Chronicle-Telegram on Thursday, said the philosophy that Cordes referenced was whether potential board members believed addiction is a mental health issue and should be treated as such.
Manning said the amendment was not influenced by politics, saying he works well with local Democrats and just wanted to ensure the commissioners were following the law. Because all other Ohio counties have already merged their boards, Lorain County would be the only place affected by the new law.
However, the commissioners said no one told them about the amendment, and they only discovered it accidentally. They believe the original law did not require them to take all of the joint board’s recommendations, but that the changes would limit their appointing authority.
Manning did not talk to commissioners about the amendment before or after it passed because he said it only clarified what he believed the law already stated. Neither Kern nor Georgas told them, either.
“I wasn’t trying to do anything behind anyone’s back,” Manning said. “… It doesn’t change anything, just clarifies it.”
Kern said the board, by design, should be a step removed from politics because it helps determine funding for the programs.
The commissioners said Kern and other board members have pushed to get an extension on the merger, citing the need for more time and more planning. They said they believed Kern wanted to extend the time past July 3 so the amendment would take effect and they’d lose their appointing power.
Kern denied that intent and said there should not be any rush to merge the boards. She said that there are too many unknowns with so little time.
Last week, Kern announced she would resign as the executive director of the Mental Health Board, citing concerns with the politics and transparency of the process of merging the two organizations.
The commissioners said they haven’t picked any board members yet and have conducted lengthy interviews with possible candidates. They said they wanted the board to be reflective of county demographics.
“Bottom line,” Kern said, “we cannot risk the disruption to client care.”
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