The City of Cleveland Has Declared Racism a Public Health Crisis. Staff Say Discrimination Plagues Its Own Health Department

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CLEVELAND CITY HALL, ERIK DROST/FLICKRCC
  • Cleveland City Hall, Erik Drost/FlickrCC

Cleveland City Council, in an “emergency” move last month, declared racism a public health crisis.

The resolution, set against the backdrop of a nationwide reckoning over anti-Black racism and amid a pandemic that has taken a disproportionate toll on Black communities, followed downtown protests against police brutality. It was backed with promises to form a working group that would “develop strategies” to tackle inequities and was followed by a fiery screed adopted by more than 70 community organizations agreeing to face the issue “head on.”



“We have to look at the City of Cleveland and ask ourselves, ‘Have we been a part of the problem? How have we been doing business?’” Councilman Basheer Jones, a co-sponsor of the resolution, said at a June 5th press conference on the stairs of City Hall.

Jones was talking about Cleveland’s safety forces, which don’t reflect the city’s racial makeup (about half of city residents are Black) , as well as local banks and foundations.



But if the city wants to prove it’s ready to turn a tide that has resulted in an embarrassingly high Black infant mortality rate, a lead poisoning problem that all but throws open prison doors for Black boys before they start kindergarten, and acknowledge – not on paper or maps or at a press conference – that racism and the stress it causes is toxic to Black lives, there’s one place it might start: its own public health department.

(Editor's Note: After months of refusing to answer specific questions for this story, and after being told the story would be published next Wednesday, the city told Scene that, based on staff calls and emails, it today re-launched an investigation into allegations of discrimination in the department, which will be led by Mayor Jackson's executive assistant Martin Flask and Tracy Martin Thompson, the Chief of Prevention, Intervention and Opportunity for Youth and Young Adults, but otherwise had no comment.)

Not a ‘healthy place to be’


No representative of the city’s public health department spoke at that June 5th press conference. It’s not clear why.

“The timeliness of this couldn’t be more apropos,” Natoya Walker Minor, the city’s chief of public affairs, said speaking on behalf of the city administration that day. “This allows us to take a deep dive into structural racism and its health consequences.”

It’s a message that at least one health department employee said felt “like a joke.”

For nearly a year before the proclamations and promises, health department staff were filing complaints, resigning and, in recent months, talking to reporters about what they deemed to be a toxic culture within the department — one that was particularly centered on and harmful to Black and brown women.

It was these employees’ job to tackle public health issues compounded by the toxic stress of racism and long-standing racial inequities in health care, including infant mortality, HIV, and, now, COVID-19. Yet, many say that discrimination, micro-aggressions and outright racism within their own department made it difficult for them to carry out these urgent tasks.

It was a problem so pronounced that several white women quit their jobs, citing the mistreatment of their coworkers of color.

As Stephanie Pike Moore, a white data epidemiologist who resigned in February, put it: “This isn’t a healthy place to be.”

It's this department that will be tapped to help the city fulfill such a grand promise, and for staffers who describe permissive racism and discrimination, that promise rings especially hollow.

A ‘bullying’ culture


Six months earlier, CDPH, long beset by problems, was on the hot seat when it – once again – lost a big grant. This time it was $1.5 million in state funding to prevent the spread of HIV and other sexually-transmitted infections. The city performed particularly poorly in its outreach to at-risk populations, including young Black men, state officials said.

City Council hastily scheduled a meeting to call for answers.

At the back of the room, the health workers who ran the program listened as higher-ups — Walker Minor, Public Health Director Merle Gordon and Health Commissioner Persis Sosiak — told council members that, despite the failure to manage the HIV grant, “deficiencies and problems” in the department were being addressed.

Missing from the meeting was Tammie Jones, a Black woman, and the HIV program’s longtime coordinator. Jones was described that day by city officials as having “institutional knowledge and deep roots” in the community, and as the program’s “one constant.” What they didn’t share while heaping praise on her was that she had resigned in August, saying the stress and “nonexistent” support had become unbearable.

“The current culture and atmosphere at [Cleveland Department of Public Health] is that of bullying, very demeaning, verbal put-downs of any work effort,” Jones wrote to her bosses in an exit interview.

During the hearing, Walker Minor framed the issues as part of a transformation of the department.

“We are, and have been, in a space of working towards a change in culture,” she said.

Gordon and city leaders have said tough changes were needed to ensure the department was positioned for the future of public health.

Former and current health department employees, including highly-respected and educated health professionals, however, say Gordon’s way of getting things done includes bullying employees and ostracizing anyone who questions her decisions. They acknowledged that Gordon inherited a chronically depleted department, but said her laser focus on documenting the department’s priorities, on paper, to attain national accreditation, overshadowed the on-the-ground work that matters most to citizens in a city with vast health challenges and disparities. And, they said, while she sought publicly to recognize racism’s impact on health and lifespan, she failed to face up to – and even exacerbated – the problems it caused within the ranks of the department she ran.

In some cases, they said, Gordon privately sought to downplay the depth of Cleveland’s disproportionate health outcomes, ordering specific numbers withheld from public reports and telling workers to include more “positive” health data.

The consequence of her management style, employees said, was a toxic work environment that caused or worsened stress-related health issues of employees. It led to formal complaints of harassment; retaliation against those who spoke up; and discrimination and microaggressions against Black and Latinx employees.

Overwhelmingly, current and former employees said they were speaking out not only because the environment was unfair for employees, but because they were heartbroken that the department serving a city of nearly 400,000 is unable to respond to persistent public health issues like infant mortality.

If the department is sick, Pike Moore, the former CDPH epidemiologist, said, it can’t help Clevelanders be healthy.

Those worries have been amplified by the coronavirus pandemic, especially as the virus has infected and killed Black, Latinx and Native Americans at higher rates than white Americans, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attributes to “long-standing systemic health and social inequities.”

Cleveland appears to follow that trend, with 60% of reported coronavirus infections among Black residents, though they comprise only about half the city’s population.

New leadership, same challenges

CITY OF CLEVELAND DIRECTOR OF PUBLIC HEALTH MERLE GORDON, PHOTO BY RACHEL DISSELL
  • City of Cleveland Director of Public Health Merle Gordon, Photo by Rachel Dissell

It was a tumultuous time at the public health department when Gordon became director in 2016.

Her predecessor had been forced to resign in the wake of a Plain Dealer series revealing that the city’s lead investigation unit had failed to inspect thousands of homes where children were poisoned. The mayor had fired the health commissioner. The state had just suspended a minority health grant.

Pressure was mounting to address urgent public health crises, including the city’s high infant mortality rate and the skyrocketing number of opioid-overdose deaths.

On top of that, the Republican National Convention was coming to town, which required CDPH to do extensive planning, train staff, prepare for possible emergencies, coordinate with a slew of other agencies, and inspect food sold at the event.

While there was some hope among health workers that Gordon would be an improvement from her predecessors, employees were “aghast,” as one former manager put it, that the city would hire yet another director who lacked public health credentials. She was hired, inexplicably, over an individual who former employees described as a “gold standard” candidate.

Most staff found out about the hiring in a city press release. Gossip followed that Gordon was hired because she had a cozy relationship with Mayor Frank Jackson from when they had served together on city council in the 1990s.

Gordon saw her mission as righting the ship.

For more than 50 years, helmed by a rotating cast of leaders with little public health experience, the department has struggled with inadequate staffing and funding — some of which comes from the city, but most of which comes from grants and other outside sources.

When Gordon arrived, CDPH had a total budget of about $15 million, whittled down from about $25 million the decade prior before the foreclosure crisis.

The numbers have rebounded a bit in the last few years under Gordon, with the help of an income tax increase, which was used to hire some new employees.

Still, public health makes up just a sliver – 1.6% – of the city’s $675 million general-fund budget. General fund dollars fund just over half of CDPH’s positions, with the rest supported by grants.

That means that jobs and programs are constantly in flux. That’s especially problematic for a department that does not have a strong record of administering grants or making hires in a timely manner.

Meanwhile, the city devotes the lion’s share of its budget – 55% – to public safety, which includes the police department.

Jackson was asked in June, during a video interview with The Appeal, which covers justice issues, whether he’d consider shifting 5% of the police budget to public health. The answer was blunt: No.

(Jackson said that wasn’t because he didn’t think it was a decent idea, but it simply wasn’t a “panacea.” Businesses, philanthropy and the community had to pitch in too, he said in a familiar refrain.)

Gordon’s tenure as director has had successes, including the department’s handling of preparations for the RNC; bringing the lead inspection program back into compliance; and CDPH attaining national accreditation.

The progress the department has made, however, has come at a cost, according to current and former employees.

Within a year of Gordon’s arrival, employees started jumping ship.

Since 2017, at least 30 employees, or more than a quarter of those employed that year, have resigned or fled to other city departments.

That includes eight epidemiologists who help identify the causes and patterns of diseases and a few who have, until resigning in recent months, been involved with emergency preparedness and response during the coronavirus pandemic.

These workers are responsible for everything from monitoring potentially-worrisome upticks in the number of flu cases to studying ways to prevent violence in the community to tackling the city’s high rate of infant mortality.

These are the workers that elsewhere have played a vital role in the response to coronavirus cases, which are again surging.

Corrective action


Toward the end of her 17-year tenure with the city, it sometimes took Tammie Jones hours to convince herself to go to work. And when she did arrive at the health department, she was often so stressed that she cried at her desk.

“No one seemed to care,” Jones wrote last year on an exit interview form.

The HIV program Jones ran expanded in 2019 to cover a six-county area. The added territory would have been stressful under ideal circumstances, but even before that, the city was struggling with its obligations to hire staff, get provider contracts signed, and to step up testing of the populations most at risk for HIV exposure: young Black men and intravenous drug users.

City workers mostly blamed a burdensome bureaucracy for the department’s inability to meet deadlines, a problem that for years the state had let slide.

Late in 2018, the city was put on notice by the state that it would lose the grant if it couldn’t keep its promises.

In December, Gordon publicly acknowledged that her health department didn’t meet those expectations, despite work the department had done to improve its accountability.

In the previous five years, state health officials had put in place “corrective action plans” for at least four CDPH programs: the lead investigation unit that failed to inspect thousands of homes, a food inspection unit, a reproductive health program and the HIV program.

In the past, the department had been allowed to flub deadlines, miss testing targets and delay contracts, Gordon said. But no more.

From Gordon’s perspective, she was doing the work necessary to change the department’s organization. That was not always welcomed by employees, she has told city leaders and reporters.

Jones, however, wrote that HIV program workers were expected to accomplish the impossible with “non-existent” support from Health Commissioner Persis Sosiak and Gordon.

Rather than helping Jones and the team work through city policy and bureaucracy, Jones said the women in charge verbally attacked and threatened the staff with changes or punishment if they didn’t meet the goals.

The stress, eventually, was too much.

“I was excited for a new leadership,” Jones wrote. “But that quickly turned out not to be a good match for the health department.

“Having a leader who is unknowledgeable and unwilling to learn how you positively impact the community both internally and externally does not make for a good Cleveland Department of Public Health.”

Gordon did not respond to multiple requests for comment, including a list of written questions sent in March to her, city communications officials and Walker Minor that included specific employee complaints.

But in an interview with the city’s human resources department in January, Gordon defended herself against some of these claims. She denied that under her leadership the department hired more white employees or employees of color were targeted in disciplinary processes, saying she left most of those decisions to her commissioners.

After rebuffing reporters' requests for interviews about the allegations for months and declining to respond to detailed lists of questions about health department employees assertions and complaints, the city late Friday sent out an email to employees and City Council leaders announcing it was going to launch an investigation after receiving "several emails and telephone calls from staff within the Cleveland Department of Public Health " that "center around questions and concerns on department moral, employee workplace complaints, workforce attrition and departmental management styles."

It also announced that Marty Flask, an executive assistant to Jackson, would lead an investigation into complaints and help administer a workforce improvement plan.

"The City of Cleveland promotes a workplace that values and respects the dignity of the individual and that is free of harassment and unlawful discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion, national origin, age, marital status, sexual orientation, disability, military/veteran status and any other basis protected by state, or local law which has jurisdiction over the employee. Harassing and discriminatory behaviors are unlawful and will not be tolerated," the email said.

A CLEVELAND HEALTH DEPARTMENT HEALTH FAIR, PHOTO BY RACHEL DISSELL
  • A Cleveland Health Department health fair, photo by Rachel Dissell


A 'divisive and hostile' culture

Some employees who left the department reported positive experiences, often noting in exit interviews that they were leaving for better pay or the chance to advance their careers after gaining experience with the city.

But many who left cited one specific problem: culture.

Over six months, reporters interviewed nearly 20 current and former CDPH employees, as well as others who work on public-health related issues in the city. Some agreed to be named. Others, who still work for the city or for agencies that rely on city contracts or cooperation, asked to remain anonymous.

Reporters also reviewed dozens of resignation letters, exit interview forms, grievances, civil rights investigator interviews, and complaints of discrimination, harrassment and retaliation filed with the city or outside agencies. Those agencies included the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Ohio Civil Rights Commission.

Some documents were obtained through public records requests; others were provided by the workers.

What documents and interviews portray is a culture that is deeply toxic, particularly for Black women. A workplace where leaders are rude and threatening, where people who question decisions or speak up are ostracized. A place driven by politics and paperwork instead of public health outcomes.

In December, the week following the city council hearing on the HIV grant, Lauren Bottoms, a highly-respected epidemiologist for the MomsFirst program, an initiative central to reducing Black infant mortality, resigned.

Bottoms listed salary inequities, a lack of transparency and the way the department’s leaders treated staff among her reasons for leaving.

Department leadership seemed to lose composure when they were stressed, she observed.

“The tone leadership used to speak to others in the office sometimes came across as accusatory and condescending,” she wrote in a resignation letter.

Multiple employees said the work environment took a toll on their mental or physical health, and in some cases, ironically, exacerbated existing health conditions.

One former employee who had worked for the department for nine years wrote in her exit interview that her choice to leave in September 2019 was “purely because of the negative culture of the department and its leadership.”

Toni Tell, who worked in health administration, called the culture “divisive and hostile.” She recounted one meeting where Gordon “pounded her fist on the table and growled at me.”

“Leading by fear and punishment is the norm,” Tell, a Black woman, wrote. “There is no opportunity to disagree with decisions that may negatively impact the department and city.”

Another former employee who worked in an administrative role told reporters the environment was “unstable,” “negative” and “toxic,” and that she left for another job because she felt her health was suffering.

A “perfect storm” of systemic, flawed processes; management’s failure to leverage talent; and an inefficient bureaucracy set up employees for failure, she said.

“There were just so many barriers, and so many reasons to get defeated, and things that just really harmed everyone’s morale,” she said.

In many documented instances, it was Black women who felt disrespected and broken down by the culture – as if they were always being watched, held to a higher standard or prevented from succeeding.

Take Sheena Fryerson, an epidemiologist who was given the task of using health, crime and other data to look at Cleveland’s violence issues – shootings and murders – through a public health lens.

Fryerson, who talked to state civil rights investigators in March as part of a complaint filed by a colleague, explained that, on one hand, it felt like she “couldn’t go to the bathroom without it being assumed I wasn’t doing my work.”

But then she’d meet nothing but resistance from her own supervisor when it came to publishing reports or getting permission to share what she found with committees created for the purpose of coming up with violence prevention strategies.

Fryerson said she went to human resources to no avail and, after it became clear her work was “blacklisted,” she stopped producing work for the health department, instead working with a different city office that focused on prevention and intervention.

“We all go through our different struggles with the administration with the health department,” Fryerson told the investigator. “What is common is that they don’t treat white people this way … You can’t help but think ‘Why do I have to be treated a different way?’”

In an interview with the city’s human resources department, Gordon denied that management was not allowing Fryerson work to be published. She attributed this to not being able to publish all data on the department’s website and Fryerson’s work at times needing “multiple corrections.”

“Ms. Fryerson’s work has not routinely been published for a variety of reasons; not because Ms. Fryerson is African American and Ms. Romig is Caucasian,” Gordon told an interviewer.

White employees also lodged complaints about the department’s culture.

David Gretick, the department’s mental health director, quietly resigned in 2017 after 9 years with the department after it became clear that, even with new leadership, the department would not change, he said.

Gretick didn’t speak out because, as he put it: “I’m not a flamethrower.”

In a personal email to Walker Minor, who had temporarily managed the department, Gretick, who is white, called the administration’s communications and actions toward staff “disrespectful, disingenuous, secretive, compartmentalized and opaque.” Transparency was expected of staff but they did not get it in return.

The department never recognized the achievements of its employees, he wrote: “It is one of the reasons that morale in the division is abysmal. The significance of this cannot be downplayed. It is absolutely a contributor to the exodus which the division has been experiencing.”

Gretick said he experienced this as opioid overdose deaths of Clevelanders jumped, killing 249 Clevelanders in 2016 and 353 in 2017. Despite years of addiction experience and community connections, he wasn’t tapped for help. As overdose deaths rose, Gretick sought to partner in 2015 with a well-regarded program to widely distribute naloxone and to provide opioid education.

“It surprised me how ambivalent the department was when I was trying to bring Project Dawn to the city,” he said. Despite being stymied, he ran the clinic for two years, scheduling his life around when it was open, operating the clinic on Christmas and New Years Eve, and taking only a handful of vacation and sick days in a 2-year period. On one of those occasions, he was asked, “Who authorized this?”

“I felt good doing it,” Gretick said. But the efforts were “never applauded.”

At one point, Gretick said, an employee who processed claims resigned and wasn’t replaced. That meant he had to learn that job, too, and was castigated for falling behind and blamed for the program being deemed “unsustainable” by the city’s fiscal office.

Gordon has said she has an “open door” policy and employees are free to bring her their concerns. Some employees, like Gretick, said they were met with defensiveness when they tried.

Employee after employee described a boss who was calm, demure, and almost meek in public but who, in the office, screamed at staff and cut people out of conversations and decisions if they questioned or disagreed with her.

One former employee recalled Gordon “going off” on her “about how people were undermining her efforts.” The woman, who worked for a health planning program for 5 years, asked that her name not be used because she still works in the health field.

“She was literally yelling at me in her office … I was in tears. So then she yelled at me because I was crying. It was like being scolded by a parent. It wasn’t a professional work environment. And from that point on, it was like I didn’t exist to her.”

Allegations of discrimination

While some employees walked away, others filed complaints or grievances that alleged they were treated unfairly or discriminated against. The city has rejected most of the allegations and many are still working their way through the grievance process.

In one instance last year, employees in the Air Quality division of the department filed a complaint that they were interrogated by police officers to figure out who sent an anonymous email to the department head, David Hearne, about issues with his leadership. That grievance was still pending in March.

One employee, Karen Aluma, whose work included identifying and tracking infectious disease patterns, filed three grievances in late 2018 and early 2019, accusing her supervisor of discrimination. A trained physician, born in Colombia, she argued that her work was subject to additional monitoring, her sick time was questioned and she was given housekeeping tasks that her co-workers were not.

Eventually, she filed a complaint with the local office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is investigating. The office does not share information about complaints until investigations are completed. Aluma also filed a complaint with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, which found there was not enough evidence that she was discriminated against based on her age or country of origin. The commission vacated that finding as part of an appeals process and is reconsidering the case, a spokeswoman said.

Aluma, currently the city’s only specialist with experience in tracking infectious diseases (other than Romig), declined to discuss the grievances and complaints with reporters.

Several of Aluma’s co-workers wrote letters, shared with city and union officials, backing up her assertions that she and another employee, a Black woman, were treated differently. Others were witnesses for her case with the state civil right commission. They included Wendy Foster, who resigned from the department, in part, because she witnessed what she felt was “blatant discrimination” by Katie Romig, the city’s chief epidemiologist

Romig, who supervises disease surveillance employees, was “disrespectful, dismissive, impatient and rude” toward Aluma and made what she felt were unwarranted comments about the woman’s accented English and ability to do her job, according to an email written by Foster.

“I didn’t feel like my speaking up at the time would have made any impact on improving the environment, so, unfortunately I decided to resign rather than continue to witness blatant discrimination and racism,” Foster wrote.

Reached by reporters, Foster said she quit because the disease surveillance specialists were a team and she felt uncomfortable that Romig, who is white, seemed to view her as a buddy or confidant, while treating a woman of color differently.

Pike Moore also spoke up, reporting to human resources that she was treated better than two of her colleagues who were minorities.

She said she was encouraged to do work outside the scope of her position, and was allowed to reach out to the state health department and partner agencies with questions.

Aluma, on the other hand, had to fill out a form to call anyone as part of her duties. While Pike Moore’s submitted work was accepted as-is with minimal edits, her two minority colleges were subject to “far more scrutiny,” she said.

In an interview, Pike Moore cited a number of examples, some of which might seem minor on their own: employees having their names removed from work so they don’t get credit, being left off of emails thanking people for work or being more closely supervised for the same work. But when added up, those things were problematic, she said.

Romig participated in a civil rights commission interview, telling the investigator that multiple hospitals complained about Aluma’s repeated calls to track down information on patients with infectious diseases and that she needed to learn a new state disease reporting system better. Romig provided emails from some hospitals to document their concerns.

A labor relations manager for the city concluded that Aluma and Romig shared the blame for the deterioration of their working relationship.

“It appears that Ms. Aluma is a difficult employee to manage who has a hard time with authority, and Ms. Romig is a new inexperienced manager who needs classes to help her learn to treat employees and perhaps not engage in such stringent micromanagement,” he wrote.

He determined that the department “has some work to do” but was “not confident that the issues stem from discriminatory or retaliatory animus.”

It’s hard, though, employees argue, to look at what is a systemic and cultural problem on a case-by-case basis when it needs to be examined as a whole.

“It’s very pronounced and has been called out even by white staff members, and it’s caused a problem regarding staff retention,” Frances Mills, the director of the Office of Minority Health told the commission investigator. “The operation of their office is completely toxic and has had a negative impact on the operation of the health department.”

Mills pointed to Gordon as the larger influence for the department’s problems, according to the city labor relations report, calling the director’s behavior “rude and mean” and the organization as a whole a “disaster” that is led by politics, not plans or benchmarks for improvement.

PHOTO BY RACHEL DISSELL
  • Photo by Rachel Dissell

Double standards

Publicly, the department leaders talk about the importance of recognizing the effects of stress and racism on health and about how certain diseases disproportionately impact minority populations, Pike Moore said. Internally, she said, their actions seemed to perpetuate that stress for minority employees. In some cases, she said, Gordon sought to stifle data that she believed would make Cleveland “look bad” compared to the wider county.

As an example, Pike Moore pointed out that Cleveland’s data was withheld from the 2019 Community Health Needs Assessment because Gordon didn’t want city disease statistics next to those for Cuyahoga County, which is whiter and healthier.

After raising concerns, Pike Moore said she was removed from projects with no explanation, not allowed to attend professional development and cut out of any direct conversations with department leaders. She later filed a retaliation complaint with the city, which was unresolved when she resigned on Feb. 14.

Gordon, in the same human resources interview, was adamant that Pike Moore’s assertions about the report were not true.

In the months prior to her resignation, Pike Moore also grew worried about the department’s lack of urgency in informing residents about an uptick in seasonal flu cases, after she spotted a concerning trend with younger patients being hospitalized. For several weeks, Pike Moore said she provided her supervisors with updates on rising hospitalization rates but got no response. Later, she was told it was her job to provide the information but not to decide when to tell the public about it, according to an email reviewed by reporters.

About 11 days later, a young patient died. After a second young patient died from the flu, department leaders decided to put out a news release. The release included numbers incorrectly cut and pasted from Pike Moore’s weekly report, and a corrected version still included inaccurate numbers of flu hospitalizations, Pike Moore said.

It was also disconcerting, she said, that she asked for, and never received, information about protocol around the rapidly spreading novel coronavirus, which the department was starting to receive calls about in late January as the virus spread beyond China.

In response, she said Romig told her just to forward calls to Romig’s number.

At that time, only a few calls had come in. Pike Moore was concerned about what would happen if the virus were to spread: “When you have untrained individuals taking over this space, they easily get overwhelmed and require a great deal of outside support, assistance and guidance which, during an outbreak such as this, you do not necessarily have the time to do.”

When cases of coronavirus started to spread in Cleveland, Aluma and Fryerson, the department's other epidemiologist, a Black woman, were not involved in the response, Instead, Gordon, Sosiak and Romig holed up and brought in medical students, the heads of other department divisions and students to contact patients who tested positive or those exposed to the virus, several department employees said.

City communications officials did not respond to questions about the makeup or experience of those working on the department’s contact tracing team.
Since March, in the midst of the pandemic, four health department employees intimately involved in the emergency response to the virus resigned from the department.

The health department’s own human resource manager, who handled the complaints from Aluma and Pike Moore, filed his own complaint with the city last year. Dreyon Wynn, a Black man, alleged that Gordon retaliated against him by blocking him from doing his job, excluding him from meetings, spreading rumors about him and “sowing discord” with employees he supervised after rejecting his recommendations for handling one of the complaints, according to public records obtained from the city.

“I am tired of the intimidation and bullying that I am experiencing for standing up for the right thing and doing what I am trained to do as an HR professional,” Wynn wrote.

The city dismissed the internal complaint of retaliation. Wynn declined to comment for this story.

Gordon denied Wynn’s claims to city labor relations staff and said it was Wynn who refused to do his job to properly investigate Karen Aluma’s grievance, even after she directed him to.

City Councilman Blaine Griffin, who chairs the Health and Human Services committee, said there’s a “natural friction” that arises when fitting social initiatives into a government bureaucracy.

“I think this is what we are seeing,” he said.

On top of that, he said, there’s immense pressure to deal with the inequities and health disparities in Cleveland, which probably adds to the stress of the caregivers and employees who serve the public.

As for the most serious allegations of discrimination and retaliation, Griffin said those should be fully investigated by third parties outside City Hall.

In the coming year, Griffin said the administration and council should examine what types of systems could be put in place to care for staff working in a stressful environment.

As for how the city works toward treating racism as a public health crisis, with the discord in its own public health department?

Part of that work, Griffin said, might need to be for the department to put its own “oxygen mask” on first.

No board

In one important way, CDPH is unique: Out of 113 local health departments in Ohio, it is the only one that is not overseen by an independent board, which often includes medical experts. It doesn’t even have a full-time medical director.

The department operates in the political swirl of City Hall, which makes for a working environment that is frequently hampered by politics and bureaucracy, according to CDPH employees.

“The service aspect always seemed to be overshadowed by the political aspect,” one former employee said. “It didn’t matter if you were doing what’s right, it mattered who you were doing it with. That was always very frustrating. I had a little too romantic a vision of public service.”

In the department’s long-troubled history, establishing an independent board or forming a city health commission with an advisory board have, at times, been suggested as possible solutions. Another recommendation has been merging with the Cuyahoga County Board of Health, whose members are appointed by an advisory council of government leaders from communities across the county.

Walking away from the health department wasn’t an easy choice for Pike Moore or others interviewed for this story who shared how deeply they care about the mission of public health, and who envisioned spending their careers improving the lives and health outcomes for Cleveland residents.

It can be hard for the public to appreciate the role of public health because much of the work is “invisible” until something goes wrong, like an outbreak or epidemic, Pike Moore said.

The emergence of coronavirus made it even tougher as it became painfully apparent how Cleveland was underperforming compared to the county department, whose leaders provide regular updates to the public and openly answer questions.

There are bright spots, she said, like the work of Mills, who has raised the profile of the Office of Minority Health. That includes working with partners to bring the short film “Toxic: A Black Woman’s Story” into the community and pressing important and realistic conversations about how racism is harming Black women and contributes to their babies dying at far higher rates than white babies.

But even Mills, who has been praised by community leaders for her work, can spot the irony inside of her own city hall department.

Mills told state civil rights investigators on March 30 that Romig, “absolutely” treated people of color differently than white people.

“There is no one holding [Romig] accountable for her behavior and I think that she could benefit a great deal from supervision and training on how to work with diverse people,” Mills told the investigator. “I say this from my expertise as an equity professional.”

It seems that Mills will get her wish.

On Sunday, June 28, Walker Minor emailed the health department staff to announce that, soon, diversity training would commence and would cover things like: bias, unconscious bias and other “barriers to diversity and inclusion that limit/impact a culture of positive behaviors, attitudes, and teamwork where everyone feels equally valued and appreciated.”

The training, she wrote, was an “essential step toward creating and maintaining a meaningful, respectful and inclusive workplace.”

(Not mentioned in the email was that “diversity and inclusion” training was recommended by the city’s human resources department in April.)

But healing what ails the department will take more than a lecture, employees said. And more than a promise.

It will take the city treating racism in its own public health department like the crisis its leaders say it is.

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