Amy Baker, who was brought in to fix Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare after a management breakdown in 2016, said she has been placed on administrative leave.
The reason behind the move was not publicly disclosed, but the decision stunned some of the staff at the mental health agency and surprised county leaders who believe the executive director was making progress.
Baker said she was informed by the agency's board on Wednesday. "I respect this process and the community volunteers who serve on the board," she said in a text message. "I trust that my leadership team and staff continue to respond to the needs of the community in my absence. I look forward to serving Clatsop County's residents again soon."
Debbie Morrow, the chairwoman of the agency's board, could not immediately be reached for comment.
Ben Paz, the agency's crisis services manager, was named interim executive director. "Every CBH employee deserves privacy as it pertains to his or her employment, so I can't really comment on those issues," he said when asked to explain the circumstances of Baker's leave. "CBH does remain in a strong clinical position. No services are going to be impacted by current events."
Some of the staff at Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare, speaking privately to discuss internal operations, are unnerved by the cryptic nature of Baker's exit. The agency's human resources director sent out an email Wednesday afternoon explaining Baker would be out of the office for the next two weeks and that Paz would be their contact. On Thursday and Friday, sources said, word surfaced that Paz was interim executive director.
While Baker serves at the discretion of the agency's board, the county contracts with Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare to provide mental health coverage, so the county manager and the Board of Commissioners have oversight responsibility.
"We were kind of caught off guard by this, to say the least," said Monica Steele, the county's budget and finance director and assistant county manager.
Baker arrived in June 2016 after three top administrators at the mental health agency left under a cloud of management dysfunction, staff turnover, legal trouble and complaints about patient care. She was the director of prevention and trauma informed systems at Greater Oregon Behavioral Health Inc., which helps administer mental health treatment in Clatsop and several other counties.
Over the past 2 1/2 years, Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare has also operated a crisis respite center in Warrenton and launched mobile crisis services to help relieve pressure on local hospitals and the county jail. The agency has partnered with Columbia Memorial Hospital in Astoria on medication-assisted treatment to help combat opioid abuse.
Baker emerged as a voice of compassion for the needy in policy debates over the homeless and a new county jail. She has also improved relationships between the mental health agency, the county and law enforcement through more frequent communication.
But the agency, like many in rural areas, has struggled to attract and retain expert staff. Some staff also still complain privately about a toxic and unhealthy work environment.
"I thought she's been doing a good job," said Scott Lee, the chairman of the county commission.
Josh Marquis, the former district attorney, has been critical in the past of the county's handling of mental health treatment. "Amy has been much, much more responsive than most — if not all — of the previous CBH directors," he said. "The only concern I've had is that there has been an alarming turnover.
"But, in fairness, I think that probably has very little to do with Amy and more to do with the pay that's offered and the nature of the work, which is very, very high intensity."