During the months of November and December OPEA has been working to stop the loss of critical services at the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. The cuts, which include closing state-operated facilities and loss of 100 jobs, were announced under the cover of an innocuous sounding agenda item at the DMHSAS Board meeting on November 13.
The Board voted to close the Children’s Recovery Center, Norman Alcohol/Drug Treatment Center, and the substance abuse unit at Bill Willis Chemical Dependency Unit in Tahlequah. In order to prevent advocates from attending and speaking on behalf of these important services, the actions were taken under an agenda item titled “Discussion and Possible Action Regarding Monthly Financial Report.”
“The Oklahoma Public Employees Association is outraged at the shenanigans used today by the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services during a meeting that will leave 100 employees without a job,” OPEA stated in a press release issued the day of the meeting
“The DMHSAS Board today RIFd 100 employees, which is the most severe action taken this year against state employees,” said OPEA Executive Director Sterling Zearley. “OPEA believes the vote to close programs and reduce staff was a clear violation of the Open Meetings Act.”
“In addition to not providing notice of the agenda items, the DMHSAS Board violated the spirit of the law by not allowing an OPEA staff member to ask a question before the action was taken,” continued Zearley. “The Board discussed and took this action using documents that were not provided to the press or those attending the meeting and failed to take any questions regarding the matter.”
“DMHSAS is the first agency to take such drastic action in the budget shortfall,” Zearley said. “OPEA believes that agencies should cut contracts by at least five percent before closing state operated services and RIFing employees. While DMHSAS said at the meeting they were reducing contracts, they did not reveal by how much or what was in their secret documents.”
After the vote was taken and the meeting adjourned, the agency released the altered budget numbers. According to information distributed by the agency at legislative hearings, the budget has been cut by $16 million. Private contracts, which comprise $200 million of agency expenditures, have only been reduced by $4.3 million, while state-operated programs, which make up $100 million of the budget, have been reduced by $11.3 million. The is two percent for private contractors and 11 percent for state operations.
“An across-the-board five percent cut would have saved critical state-operated in-patient beds,” said OPEA Policy and Research Director Trish Frazier. “The agency has not cut private mental health centers. Certainly, each organization could find enough in savings to preserve critical services.”
OPEA Files Complaint
The next week, OPEA filed a complaint against the board, asking the Oklahoma County District Attorney to investigate a violation of the Oklahoma Open Meetings Act.
According to the Oklahoma Statutes Title 25, Section 303, “All meetings of such public bodies…shall be preceded by advance public notice specifying the time and place of each such meeting to be convened as well as the subject matter or matters to be considered at such meeting.” In a similar case, Wilson vs. City of Tecumseh, 194 P.3d 140 (OK CIV APP. 2008) the court found the City’s failure to properly notify the public of the intended action in the agenda was a willful violation the Open Meetings Act and thereby rendered the vote null and void as a matter of law. See Id. at 145.
In a letter to Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, OPEA says “(we) believe ODMHSAS intended to deceive the public, employees, and members of the press to prevent questions or opposition to their action.” OPEA is requesting the board action be deemed invalid and that fines be levied against the board.
OPEA Holds Meeting for Norman Area
On December 2, at the Norman library, OPEA held a meeting to provide members an opportunity to speak to their legislators about the impact of the cuts on state employees and their clients. In preparation for the meeting, the association issued a press release to the Norman community, inviting interested parties to attend.
“We did not anticipate so many former clients would attend and speak for the services,” said Frazier. “The testimony of those whose lives had been saved by state programs in Norman was moving. Clearly, these programs are making a difference in the lives of those suffering from addiction and mental illness.”
Representatives Scott Martin, Lisa Billy, and Wallace Collins and Senator John Sparks attended the meeting. OPEA Deputy Director Scott Barger facilitated. One by one citizens in recovery rose to tell of their journeys to recovery.
“Because of the state funded programs I don’t have to smoke dope to deal with what’s going on in my head,” the first speaker, who is in recovery from mental health and addiction disorders, told participants. “I’ve been there. I started at 16 and am now 29. I have kids that live with me. I go to the grocery store instead of the crack house. I came from a home where my mother used drugs. Recovery is possible. If it weren’t for NADTC and the Oklahoma County Drug Court, I would not be here. These programs saved my life. Not only did they help me, but my family. I was able to care for my Mom in the last years of her life. I just learned how to read five years ago. I was able to read to my Mom before she passed.
“I started drinking when I was 13,” a man stated. “I quit when I was 47. I learned the tools that I need to survive at NADTC. If you close NADTC, it would be like watching your home place burn down. It’s where my life started again. If you close the place down people will die.”
“The love the people at NADTC have for their patients caused me to want to go on,” said another former resident. “It’s not just a job and a paycheck. They are there because they care. We don’t want people in prison. We want them to be productive members of society.”
“If you close the doors, people will be stealing your stuff and eating out of your trash cans,” said one young man. “By the grace of God and NADTC, I am alive today. Take your money and build another prison for these people who could have been helped like me. It’s a crime to close this place”
Employees told legislators that NADTC had 650 clients last year. Most were homeless and involved in the criminal justice system before coming to NADTC.
“These cuts are not set in stone yet,” said Senator Sparks in response to a worker’s question. “I hope DMHSAS will not have cuts as large as some agencies because of the life saving services that you provide.”
Representative Martin told participants when session begins possibly state leaders could move some money around and save critical services.
“We are going to have to make cuts,” Martin said. “The question is where?”
Representative Billy, who serves on the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the DMHSAS budget, told participants that she would be sending a letter over to the agency the next day to ask about alternatives to cutting treatment beds.
“This is the best performance review any organization could have,” said OPEA Deputy Director Scott Barger. “These services have saved the state in costs to the prison, health care and foster care system. More importantly, are the lives and families that have been saved.”
OPEA Stops Christmas RIF
With the holidays rapidly approaching, OPEA became concerned that DMHSAS would post a reduction-in-force (RIF) plan close to Christmas. After talking with legislators, the Association learned DMHSAS was planning to implement a RIF plan during the holidays. OPEA voiced our concern to Representatives Scott Martin, Lisa Billy and Wallace Collins. Thanks to OPEA’s quick action and the hard work of these public officials, the RIF has been deferred until after the holidays.
“This gives us time to fight for funding of these critical services during legislative session,” said OPEA Policy and Research Director Trish Frazier. “We appreciate the responsiveness of these dedicated House. In addition, we are working with them to find funding for these critical services and stop the loss of state employee jobs.”