Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Performance of Metro social services chief criticized

Board meets this week to review controversial director's contract By MICHAEL CASS and JANELL ROSS • Staff Writers (Tennessean) • February 19, 2008 The head of Metro's social services programs, criticized for failing to make recommended changes, may find out this week whether she gets to keep her job. Executive Director Gerri Robinson oversees an agency that works to help the city's poorest residents, especially the elderly, disabled and homeless, through programs such as "meals on wheels" and in-home care for seniors. It has about 90 employees and an $8.7 million budget. Councilman Jim Gotto of Hermitage said Robinson has "totally refused" to carry out a reorganization of services that auditors recommended just before she was hired in 2004. He hopes she's ousted. "Quite frankly, I just don't think she's done a very good job," Gotto said. "Change is very much needed." Robinson defended her leadership, pointing to her department's accreditation last year by a national organization. She said she loves the work, which pays her $123,771 a year. "This is my dream job," she said. The ultimate decision on Robinson's fate will fall to the Social Services Board of Commissioners, which meets Wednesday to review Robinson's performance and contract. Proposal, audit conflict The meeting comes after almost a year of upheaval in the department. Three of seven commissioners resigned last spring after the board voted 3-2 to give Robinson an 8 percent raise. A fourth commissioner also quit for job-related reasons, leaving the body unable to meet for eight months. (Because the board couldn't meet to approve the minutes of the March meeting and Robinson's contract had expired, she actually never received the raise.) Mayor Karl Dean appointed four new commissioners after he took office last fall. The board started meeting again in December. On Dec. 27, Robinson recommended eliminating the department's Planning and Coordination Unit as a way to deal with possible budget cuts in the next fiscal year. The unit works to identify social service needs and develop long-range plans for meeting them. According to the official minutes of the meeting, Robinson explained that the unit isn't required by law and that government's role is "to provide safety net services." But the proposal ran counter to the 2004 audit, which said Social Services should "assume the role of planner and coordinator" and "discontinue being a direct service provider." Dr. Frank Boehm, a new board commissioner, objected to Robinson's idea, saying the planning unit was "vital to (Metro Social Services') business model," according to the minutes. Like most other board members, Boehm declined to comment for this story. But Metro Councilman Erik Cole, who represents part of east Nashville, said Robinson's proposal was "astonishing." "There is a role to play in the coordination of services and needs assessment," said Cole, who serves on a Metro commission working to end chronic homelessness. Cole said the Social Services board's Personnel Committee voted 2-1 last week to recommend that the board give Robinson a three-year contract extension. The possibility of an extension without a "thorough, credentialed evaluation" of Robinson was "very problematic," he said. Assisted in transition Robinson said the department tried to outsource its largest remaining services, nutrition and in-home care for senior citizens, but didn't get much response. "If there's a market out there, and the private sector can pick up the slack, they aren't telling us about it," she said. Gwendolyn K. Harris, chairwoman of the Social Services board, said Robinson has helped the department make the transition from service provider to primarily a research and referral agency. Robinson said the department had 400 employees just five years ago. Harris said Robinson has refused to give in during tumultuous times. "Her job has been hell, to put it mildly, and ours has been a challenge," Harris said. "But I commend her because she stayed in there and stuck with us." Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling admonished Robinson last month for proposing a list of budget reductions that began with service cuts. But the list was approved by the board at the Dec. 27 meeting, Harris said. "Change is not always perceived as being an improvement," Harris said. Renette Miller, 34, is a single mother of three who lives in south Nashville and works as a home health aide. She describes her experiences with Social Services as mixed. She has been handed off from one agency to another while her finances are dwindling. Miller approached Social Services last month at the suggestion of a church friend. Miller recently had the flu, had to take time off from work and lost several days of pay. She said she'll need help paying her rent March 1. Social Services referred her to the Metro Action Commission, the agency that has taken over immediate family financial assistance. "I think they want to help. They sound like the want to help…," Miller said. "but I've got two weeks before I'm in real trouble."

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