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MHA yields to funders; agrees to change leader

STORY BY MEG LAUGHLIN, (Week of December 20, 2012)
Photo: Kris Sarkauskas and BobYoung address Hospital District board.

The Hospital District finally cut off funding to the Mental Health Association, voting unanimously Monday not to give it any more money until MHA President Kris Sarkauskas and the entire MHA board resigns.

The decision came after several months of back and forth debate this fall between the Hospital District, which allocated about $400,000 in property tax money to the association this year, and MHA.

Following Monday’s Hospital District meeting, MHA Board Chairman Bob Young said Sarkauskas had agreed to resign effective Dec. 31 and said he was prepared to replace the MHA’s current board members with those the funding agencies would prefer. 

No names were mentioned.

“You’ll have a board that knows nothing about mental  health and you’ll have a CEO that knows very little,” Young told the Hospital District trustees.

Most of the maneuvering in recent days had been aimed at keeping Sarkauskas as MHA chief. The Hospital District and other financial backers such as the United Way and the Robert F. and Eleonora W. McCabe Foundation, which give another combined $200,000 a year to MHA, repeatedly opposed letting Sarkauskas stay.

With negotiations with MHA, a nonprofit which provides mental health services to the needy in Indian River County, going nowhere, the Hospital District finally took action.

“Over the past several years, we (the funders) have been concerned over the management of MHA and its oversight by the board of directors. But the catalyst for our current action is articles in 32963,” said Hospital District Board Chairman Tom Spackman, a retired pediatric radiologist.

Those articles in Vero Beach 32963 exposed several problems with the organization: careless hiring standards and a lax attitude about patient complaints, as well as the high and frequent turnover of MHA employees and board members. 

To that list of disturbing practices, the Hospital District added: MHA’s “unethical co-mingling of funds,” and the “management by intimidation” by Sarkauskas, who forbids employees to talk to board members.

Also, according to its own tax forms signed by Sarkauskas, the MHA has no whistleblower policy, though its government funder, the Florida Department of Children and Families, requires one.

In response to the concerns of its  financial backers, MHA hired employment attorney Helen Scott to help rewrite its employee handbook.

Scott also was paid by MHA to work out a severance package for Sarkauskas.

But negotiations on that package seemed to go nowhere, and Young continually returned to the position that Sarkauskas and the board, with him as chairman, would stay in place because “no management problems existed at MHA.”

At a Hospital District meeting two weeks ago, Young blamed MHA’s problems on Vero Beach 32963.

“If it weren’t for those crazy articles,” he said, “everything would be fine.”

Hospital District board member, Burton Lee, a retired Sloan Kettering oncologist, noted that the more discussions the Hospital District had with MHA leadership, the more Sarkauskas was determined “to hang on.”

“She has an iron grip on her board, and they are backing her all the way to the grave,” said Lee.

One by one MHA board members implored the Hospital District to keep Kris Sarkauskas in place and not stop giving the association money.

“We think Kris should stay. MHA is running beautifully,” said Young.

“Ten employees left in four years (from a staff of 20),” said MHA board member Barbara Horne. “That’s not unreasonable.”

MHA board member Beverly O’Neill called the Hospital District’s decision to cut funding “a Draconian action that will weaken the fragile continuum of mental health care in the county.”  

But the Hospital District, the United Way and the McCabe Foundation which, combined, gave MHA $600,000 – the bulk of its funding in the last year – remained firm in their position that MHA needed to dump Sarkauskas and the current board or lose the money.

Sarkauskas walked to the podium and told funders: “Why am I still standing up? The reason is simple: My advocacy for mental health is not a job but a commitment.” 

A commitment that earns her over $100,000 a year.

Last to speak was MHA chairman Young: “Any statement that our board is captivated by Kris is nonsense beyond belief....I beg you to reconsider keeping her....If she goes, we have an indication that a lot of employees will leave.”

His last offer: “The board will resign, but please keep her.”

But the Hospital District board would have none of it, and voted to suspend MHA funding until both Sarkauskas and the MHA board resign.

After the meeting, Sarkauskas and her supporters stood outside the commission chambers, talking about what they saw as the unfairness of the vote.

Before Sarkauskas walked to her car, Ann Berner, who oversees the DCF contract for $404,000 a year, introduced herself to Sarkauskas. As oversight administrator for the government funds given to MHA, Berner has opened an investigation of the nonprofit.

“We’re not sure MHA can remain viable and we need to know to continue our funding,” she told Vero Beach 32963 a few days ago.