Michael Amon

Ex-Managers Fault Social Agency Chief; Russell’s Management Style Assailed

Posted in The Washington Post by michaelamon on December 7, 2006

April 25, 2004 — The Washington Post, SM1
Michael Amon, Washington Post Staff Writer

When news broke this month of a state audit questioning the handling of contracts at the St. Mary’s County Department of Social Services, the director, Ella May Russell, shut the agency down for an hour and held two emergency staff meetings in the department’s Leonardtown and Lexington Park offices.

Russell told staff members that the 19 problems noted by the auditors — the most findings in recent memory — were being corrected, according to a summary of the April 12 meetings obtained by The Washington Post. She blamed the problems on seven management vacancies, all positions she cannot fill because of a state hiring freeze.

“Not having individuals in these positions impacted this Department’s ability to provide adequate program supervision and monitoring,” the summary said.

But several managers who resigned in the past two years and created those vacancies said in interviews that they left because of Russell’s management style. Although they acknowledged her innovations in the delivery of services, they described a workplace in which senior assistants’ suggestions are unheeded, agency problems are overlooked, and disciplinary action is personal.

“That’s the reason why I left,” said Celeste Belmont, 31, a former agency supervisor who managed welfare caseloads. She resigned abruptly last month after four years and moved to Virginia without a job.

“This is something that needs to be addressed at a higher level,” she said of Russell. “Unfortunately, it’s not being heard, but this is a major problem for St. Mary’s County.”

Former supervisors Katherine Parker, who left in 2002, and John Johnson, who left last month, also said in interviews that they resigned because of Russell.

“It was an abusive environment,” said Parker.

The positions Belmont, Parker and Johnson held remain vacant.

Russell, a respected agency director who has had her post for nearly 20 years, did not return several phone calls over two weeks seeking comment for this article. In a previous interview, she said her detractors — inside and outside the agency — were few.

“I don’t know of any organization that has 100 percent of the staff who are always satisfied about everything,” she said.

The disputes between senior staff and Russell go back several years. In June 2002, they came to a head when nine of 13 staff supervisors voted “no confidence” in Russell’s leadership and asked her to resign or transfer to another department.

In a separate ballot, the supervisors voted unanimously that Russell needed to change her leadership style, according to seven managers who were present for the vote.

“We are now stating our unwillingness to be verbally intimidated and demeaned,” the supervisors wrote in a letter to Emelda Johnson, then-secretary of the Maryland Department of Human Resources, the social services agency’s parent. “We have also become intolerant of being forced to observe and live with contractual, financial and unethical improprieties on the part of the Director.”

Leonard H. Ames, then-assistant director for operations and the local social services agency’s second-in-command, took the supervisors’ issues up with Russell on June 11, 2002. A week later, Russell fired Ames, according to a termination letter signed by her that was obtained by The Post. His position remains vacant.

The inspector general for human resources launched an investigation into the supervisors’ complaints, according to state documents obtained by The Post. In the end, state officials found Russell did nothing improper, according to documents.

But, in a Jan. 13, 2003, letter to Russell, Johnson noted that the inspector general “raised questions” about the St. Mary’s agency’s awarding of contracts. Johnson said the department’s procedures “often appear to be biased,” though, she added, “there is clearly no biased intent.”

Less than three weeks ago, on April 6, the most recent audit of the social services agency again questioned Russell’s handling of contracts. Auditors said Russell served as both project officer and approving authority on at least five contracts, a violation of state policy.

Project officers help contractors execute plans; approving authorities allocate the money for the contract. State officials say the two duties are separated to ensure that more than one person is aware of a contractors’ responsibilities.

For those contracts, it was at first unclear whether any services were delivered by the contractors, the audit said. Documentation was later offered proving the services were performed, according to the audit.

In 2002, Ames wrote letters to state officials, asking them to investigate problems with the same five contracts cited now by state auditors. All of the contracts were for just under $25,000, the amount at which a more competitive bidding process is required.

Ames also complained of a “bullying” work environment fostered by Russell, which he said caused “the loss of talented managers and staff.” He said supervisors would not propose ideas at group meetings involving Russell because they were afraid she would disapprove, leading them to be nicknamed “The Cardboard People.”

“The staff exodus will continue, and citizens of St. Mary’s County will be adversely affected,” Ames warned state officials in a June 2002 letter.

The staff problems come during a period of great change at the agency. Several years ago, Russell overhauled the department, requiring nearly every social worker to be trained in almost every facet of social services — assistance with cash, medical needs and housing problems.

Most social services agencies separate these functions, causing welfare recipients with multiple needs to go through several different offices. Russell’s plan became a model for the state, and even detractors, such as Ames, have called her a “visionary.”

Russell has said her internal critics were employees not willing to deal with change. “Not everyone likes change,” she said.

Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-St. Mary’s), who has described Russell as “fantastic to work with,” said Friday that he had spoken about her recently with Department of Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe. Dyson said he told McCabe that Russell has been doing a great job.

“If there was something wrong there, I would know about it,” Dyson said.

“She is not the kind of person you would run up to and give a hug,” he added. “It took me a couple of years to warm up to her, but she really knows how to get things done. I can’t imagine the agency would be better without her,”

St. Mary’s County Administrator George G. Forrest also praised Russell’s work. He said she has been instrumental in relocating poor residents from Lexington Manor and in finding work for welfare recipients.

“Without Mrs. Russell, we would not have been as effective as we are,” said Forrest, who called the issues noted in the audit “minor.”

“What you have there are some disgruntled employees,” Forrest said of Russell’s critics. “You have some folks who are being required to perform duties, and they are not happy with that. . . . I don’t think I’ve seen enough evidence that I would vote no confidence in her as a director.”

But former employees and three current employees who spoke only on condition of anonymity because they feared retribution from Russell said the director’s management style continues to drive hardworking employees away. In two months, two supervisors — Belmont and Johnson — have resigned.

“In Baltimore, the Department of Social Services couldn’t get away with this,” Ames said. “But [Russell] is far from where the action is. Nobody knows what’s she’s doing.”

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