Probe of CMHA Elgin finds poor governance, lax oversight

Funding body appointing a supervisor for mental health organization with $6 million annual budget.

The agency that controls health-care spending in Southwestern Ontario plans to appoint a supervisor for the Elgin branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

The South West Local Health Integration Network (LHIN) said it’s taking the rare step after receiving a report from a third-party investigator it appointed to probe complaints by CMHA Elgin employees of workplace bullying and harassment.

Ron McRae, a health-care consultant who conducted the investigation, identified a number of issues at CMHA Elgin in his report, including that two of the four members of its board are friends of the executive director.

A spokesperson for the South West LHIN said the report identified a number of concerns.

“This decision (to appoint an investigator) is the result of a final report . . . identifying a number of concerns regarding governance, management, operations, and the overall health of the workplace environment, and providing a number of recommendations,” Andrew Chunilall, acting board chair of the South West (LHIN), said in a statement.

The LHIN did not make anyone available for an interview.

The LHIN board must meet to determine when a supervisor will be appointed and how long they will be in place, a spokesperson said. A meeting date has not been set.

The LHIN appointed McRae earlier this year in response to complaints by OPSEU Local 133 that represents workers at CMHA Elgin.

The union held an information picket last October to press the agency to address workers’ concerns about on-the-job bullying and harassment.

CMHA Elgin provides crisis counselling, court support, employment support, housing programs and training in St. Thomas and Elgin County.

McRae interviewed board members and more than half of CMHA Elgin’s 66 employees in his investigation.

He identified three areas of concern in his report: governance oversight, management oversight and operations and financial management.

McRae found two of four board members are friends of CMHA Elgin executive director Heather DeBruyn.

“This relationship creates the potential for a conflict of interest arising for these members, depending on the nature of the issue under deliberation by the board,” the report noted.

McRae recommended the board expand its membership to at least six or seven people who have a different skill set than those already on the board.

In his report McRae also noted the board is responsible for annual evaluations of the executive director’s performance. The report notes the evaluations appear to be subjective.

McRae recommended future evaluations be completed by a third party with input from board members, management staff, front-line workers and community partners.

Debruyn was paid $106,893 in salary and $21,527 in benefits in 2017, according to information posted by the provincial government for public sector employees who earned more than $100,000 last year.

McRae also reported the board has never mandated a strategic plan be developed for CMHA Elgin.

“An organization with a budget in excess of $6 million would greatly benefit from a roadmap to the future, which a comprehensive strategic plan would provide,” he said.

During interviews with front line staff, McRae asked them to assess their confidence in Debruyn’s capacity to effectively lead CMHA Elgin.

Noting the scale from zero to five (zero being unacceptable and five being excellent) is subjective, McRae said the average assessment was very low at 1.8.

“The low level of confidence expressed in the executive director’s leadership at the front-line staff level . . . should be a cause for serious concern to the board,” the report said.

In the report, McRae said the board needs to determine whether Debruyn has the ability to make changes to achieve a healthy workplace.

A spokesperson for CMHA Elgin said it welcomes the report as a planning tool to make improvements to better support staff and meet the needs of the community.

“Prior to the report’s publication, we had already begun taking steps to enhance governance, management, and operation structures,” Jesse Lake, CMHA Elgin communications director, said in a statement. He declined to be interviewed.

Ed Arvelin, chair of OPSEU’s mental health and addictions division, said the union will work “with whatever the LHIN provides us” to rebuild its relationship CMHA Elgin.

“We’re glad a third-party came in to take a look, even though the LHIN directs the money. We’re glad they came in to take a look and see what was going on, what was needed.”

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