The new director of the Benton County Health Department says she wants to make the department the best it can be, but she’s going to take her time deciding how to do that.
Dawn Emerick, who previously served as the public health director for Clackamas County, started her new job on March 11.
But she didn’t take the reins of the Health Department right away. Mitch Anderson, a 22-year department veteran who had held the top post for the last 11 years, stayed on until April 1, when his retirement became official.
That gave Emerick a chance to learn “the Benton County way” of doing things while providing a strong sense of continuity during the change of leadership.
“That was really, really, really helpful, and I wish not just more government organizations but other entities would do that,” she said.
Emerick inherits a department with about 135 employees and an annual budget of nearly $26 million.
She also inherits a certain amount of turmoil left over from her predecessor’s tenure.
In April 2017, two employees of the department’s Mental Health Division filed wide-ranging complaints with the state Bureau of Labor and Industries, alleging discrimination, whistleblower retaliation, professional misconduct and other problems within the department.
BOLI dismissed both complaints last August, citing insufficient evidence. Nevertheless, the county brought in a consultant to help the department improve operations, communications and management structure.
Emerick declined to offer any criticism of Anderson’s management. But she also said she’s doing an evaluation of the department with an eye toward making improvements.
“I always take a 90-day assessment approach when coming into an organization, so that’s what we’re doing right now,” she said.
“We’ll be doing a five-question survey asking about morale,” she added. “We’ll do that again in six months, again in 12 months and again in 18 months. We want to make very sure we have a very (satisfied) and motivated workforce.”
Also on Emerick’s agenda: meetings with individual department managers and employees, as well as field work with the department’s frontline staff.
“I don’t want to be a stranger,” she said. “That’s very important to me.”
Emerick said she has a set of six “guideposts” she will use as she attempts to transform the way the Benton County Health Department operates:
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• Make the most of data and technology.
• Create a culture of continuous quality improvement.
• Focus on person-centered service delivery.
• Make evidence-based policy decisions.
• Create opportunities for workforce development.
• Foster a workplace environment that is welcoming for all.
However, she insists, “no big, hard changes are being made right now.”
While Emerick said she will take the department’s past personnel issues into account as she moves forward, she doesn’t want to get bogged down in what’s gone before.
“These things that happened in the past are pieces of information that certainly can help me as a leader coming in, (but) I also think we need to look forward,” she said.
“I don’t think that should define us as an agency.”
When she’s not working, Emerick enjoys hiking, traveling and photography. Now that their three children are grown, she and her husband, Al, are able to take more trips, although they also have a European family vacation planned for this summer.
Emerick also enjoys traveling with friends. Last summer, for instance, she and a girlfriend went to Peru, making a five-day trek to Macchu Picchu on foot.
But she particularly relishes the chance to get away by herself from time to time and tries to make one trip a year where “it’s just me and my camera, so it’s spontaneous,” she said.
“I think when you’re in this type of work, you’re always having to manage and control and lead and organize,” she added. “These trips by myself, I can be spontaneous — I don’t have to worry about anybody.”