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Agreement reached in county mental health, addiction boards merger (UPDATED)

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ELYRIA — A legal challenge to the makeup of the governing board of the Lorain County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services agency ended Thursday with a compromise that set in stone 18 names who will now oversee the delivery of those services to county residents.

On Thursday, Lorain County commissioners unanimously approved an amended resolution replacing two members of the board on recommendations by one of its predecessor agencies, the soon-to-be-dissolved Lorain County Board of Mental Health.

In the compromise, commissioners gave up the appointments of Kreig Brusnahan and Dan Carrero, who will be replaced by Board of Mental Health members Tracey Frierson and Joe Hribar. The Board of Mental Health voted 11-3 Wednesday to approve the agreement.

Charlie Neff, the Board of Mental Health’s associate director, said he was “thrilled” the two sides were able to reach an agreement.

“I think both parties are satisfied with where we are,” he said Thursday. “I’m looking forward to the new board coming together next Tuesday and starting its work. I think it’s a great thing for the county.”

With the 10 appointments granted them by law, commissioners originally chose Brusnahan, Karen

McIlwaine, Regan Phillips, Sandra Premura and James Schaeper on recommendations by the ADAS Board. They also chose Carrero, Inez James, Hope Moon, Dan Urbin and former county commissioner and current Lorain Municipal Court Clerk Ted Kalo on the Board of Mental Health’s recommendations.

Given eight recommendations of its own, the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services chose Arthur Cleary, Kara Keating Copeland, David DiTullio and Pamela Waite of the ADAS Board and David Ashenhurst, Tim Carrion, Denise Eacott and Karen Sutera from the Board of Mental Health.

Board membership will be staggered in two-, three- and four-year terms. Commissioner Matt Lundy said Brusnahan withdrew his name from consideration prior to Thursday’s final appointments, and Carrero “will serve at a later date.”

“Two very strong candidates who would be very good for the board today and in the future,” he said.

A legal challenge over the boards’ merger brought by the Board of Mental Health ended up in Lorain County Common Pleas Judge Chris Cook’s courtroom. Cook issued a temporary restraining order June 30 forbidding the county from dissolving the boards until he could hold hearings, one day before the July 1 deadline for the merger to take effect.

Member of both boards had expressed concerns early in the process that commissioners’ appointments had political motives, a charge the commissioners denied. Former Board of Mental Health Executive Director Kathleen Kern eventually resigned over the merger, saying it had become “chaotic.”

During a brief court hearing Thursday in which he approved the compromise and dismissed the restraining order effective July 16, Cook praised the commissioners for addressing the Board of Mental Health’s concerns.

“I was very candid with the parties that I was not sure where the law stood in this area,” he said. “This was untested waters. Clearly the commissioners had discretion here, but the question was: How much?”

Cook had urged compromise during a hearing Tuesday, warning that the Board of Mental Health might not get its way if he had to decide the issue or if it went before a higher court on appeal.

“I always thought this case was about two different groups with the same objective — the same agenda really. And that agenda was to combine the ADAS and mental health boards into one entity,” Cook said. “It became more efficient to serve the needs of Lorain County’s most vulnerable people. ... There was just some difference on which road to take to get there.”

Neff said his board only wanted to ensure the law was followed and “thankfully people on both sides were reasonable and came to a resolution everyone thought was fine.”

“We were thrilled, and the judge was thrilled he didn’t have to decide it,” Neff said. “It’s always better when you can work out differences like this. Those differences are now in the past and we are looking to the future.”

Commissioners announced their plan to merge the boards in March. Lorain County was the final Ohio county to have separate boards for mental health and addiction services.

Lundy said after Thursday’s court hearing he was proud that Lorain County no longer has the distinction of being the only county in Ohio without a merged board and can now “spend money helping people, not paying attorney bills.”

“My hope is that the distinction will now be that we will have the best board in Ohio for helping those battling mental illness and addiction,” he said. “Compromise is a good thing. It’s important to be reasonable and responsible, and we were reasonable and responsible in wanting to make sure we could get services to those who need them as soon as possible instead of sitting in a courtroom and going through legal issues.”

“I’m just looking forward, and moving forward hopefully this new board will do good work,” Commissioner Lori Kokoski said, adding that the board should have a bit more money going forward to aid addiction services. “We got the best balanced board we could.”

Commissioner Sharon Sweda, who took over Kalo’s seat by appointment of the Democratic Party only three weeks before the merger was announced, called it “extremely rewarding” to work through the process and find a way to resolve the issues between those involved.

“Folks get frustrated when they see these bottlenecks, and our intention was always extremely pure, that we wanted to get those boards merged and we wanted to deliver the services,” she said. “Not at any time did we feel that the end goal was any different on their side of the fence than ours. I think the judge really echoed the fact that we had the same goal; we just had a different vision of how that path would go. I’m proud that we consistently followed what we were charged to do” under the law.

The new board will meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the commissioners’ public hearing room on the fourth floor of the county Administration Building at 226 Middle Ave.

Neff said the Board of Mental Health always has felt a responsibility to be good stewards of taxpayer money and to the thousands of people in Lorain County who rely on the services available to them.

The new board will “make sure not only these things continue, but there are opportunities to enhance those services and gain efficiencies” in operation, he said. “We’re going to go forward carefully and take care of what’s important, and that’s the people of the county.”

Contact Dave O’Brien at (440) 329-7129 or do’brien@chroniclet.com. Follow him at @daveobrienCT on Twitter.


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