Tension in the Heir

At the Mental Health Board, it's 'Give us Denihan or give us death.'

Jimmy Scott & the Jazz Expressions Tri-C Metropolitan Campus, 2900 Community College Avenue 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 18



Nearly every one of its CEOs has left under clouds of scandal or mismanagement. So one might expect the Cuyahoga County Community Mental Health Board to welcome outside input as it chooses its next CEO. Especially when that input comes from county commissioners and the Ohio Department of Mental Health -- the two forces controlling the board's $94 million budget.

After all, the board has long blamed its tradition of poor service on a lack of funds.

Yet the board will defy both when it names Bill Denihan as its next CEO. The announcement will come in the next few weeks, barring a last-ditch effort by county and state to talk the board's trustees out of it.

The agency has not had permanent leadership since last June, when trustees fired Ella Thomas. This winter, they informed the county of her replacement. They got a chilly reception.

"Originally, they were coming in with their choice of Bill Denihan," says Commissioner Jimmy Dimora. "We told them it would be better for them to see what else is out there. People with past experience, educational experience, practical experience might be available."

So trustees fielded candidates from around the nation, interviewing 37 in all. Upon finishing, they returned to the county. Their choice was still Denihan.

The commissioners' choice was still anyone but Denihan.

It was Denihan, after all, who ran for mayor against commissioners Tim McCormack and Jane Campbell -- and against the advice of Dimora, the Democratic Party chairman.

The same three also appointed him to lead the Department of Children and Family Services, which he abandoned for his mayoral campaign. Denihan accepted a contract buyout, under which he could not seek county employment for five years. The penalty for losing his mayoral bid was supposed to be political exile.

Yet the Mental Health Board is technically independent, since it only contracts with the county. In Dimora's opinion, Denihan's appointment would be a devious circumvention of the buyout. (A board spokesman said the agency wouldn't comment on the matter.)

So the commissioners countered with a March 26 resolution stipulating that the next CEO possess "strong expertise in mental health practice," effectively excluding Denihan. State Director of Mental Health Michael Hogan mailed a letter reminding trustees that "the successful candidate should have experience in the mental health field." McCormack also issued a statement: "Candidly, I am reviewing Ohio law to determine the requirements that the CEO have mental health competence and work history."

If state and county officials are trying to block Denihan's candidacy now, it does not bode well for the moment when Denihan, as board CEO, begs those same officials for a bigger budget. But neither political rivalry nor an agency in crisis is enough to deter Denihan, who seems to relish conflict. "I've been rescuing agencies and putting out fires for 25 years," he says. "I have a reputation as a troubleshooter and a change agent."

Yet Dimora questions whether the mental health community can endure a Denihan-style bloodletting. The network of agencies contracting with the board has seen turnaround specialists before, to little effect. Moreover, Dimora would have appointed one of the community's own, Steve Friedman, the director of Mental Health Services, who also applied for the post.

But for all their power in local politics, Dimora and McCormack remain at the mercy of trustees, 16 unpaid volunteers. Only last December, those trustees encouraged clients to rally at a commission meeting against the prospect of funding cuts. They warned that a smaller budget would bring about a service meltdown. Now, with the choice of Denihan, the board is placing its entire budget in peril.

"We could, in protest, reduce funding or cut funding altogether, so we could use that as leverage," says Dimora. "But we can't set policy." In his mind, the Mental Health Board just doesn't understand what's good for it.

"You can lead the horse to water," he says, "but you can't make him drink."

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