DAYTON — Controversy continues to surround Helen Jones-Kelley, who went from resigning as director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services in 2008 to becoming executive director of the Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board of Montgomery County.
Her supporters say she is a lifetime public servant who made a one-time mistake when she authorized state database searches that had no legitimate agency purpose on Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, the infamous “Joe the Plumber,” who gained attention when he confronted Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign.
Her critics say she used her position to violate someone’s privacy once and will have even greater opportunity as the head of ADAMHS, which maintains confidential treatment records for 20,000 people.
“I was a direct result of her abusing the system,” Wurzelbacher said. “If I was living in Montgomery County, I’d definitely question the powers-that-be who hired her and ask why they think she is trustworthy.”
Retiring ADAMHS director Joe Szoke and Montgomery County Administrator Deborah Feldman, who have 20-year work histories with Jones-Kelley, call her an “extremely trustworthy” champion of children who has a great track record for managing very tight budgets.
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“I believe a person needs to be judged in their totality,” Feldman said. “She has a depth of caring for families and children that is deeper than anyone I know. That is what drives her and I have seen the results.”
Greg Gantt, chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party, says public servants should be held to a higher standard, as both Democrats and Republicans work to re-instill confidence in the system.
“Rewarding bad behavior isn’t a way to accomplish that,” he said.
Because the ADAMHS database contains treatment information safeguards against questionable searches are already in place, including a privacy officer, Szoke said. The information also is protected by federal HIPAA rules, which require that the agency prove it has a plan for keeping those records private.
The search that resulted in the hiring of Jones-Kelley as ADAMHS executive director involved interviews with dozens of community leaders and service providers, along with a management test.
Stan Eichenauer, ADAMHS board vice president and search committee chairman, said Jones-Kelley repeatedly ranked above over candidates. Score sheets from the interviews show Jones-Kelley earning 142 points compared to 138 for Judy Wood, the executive director of the Mental Health & Recovery Board of Wayne and Holmes County.
Jones-Kelley’s supporters say she comes to the ADAMHS job on July 1 with a single smudge on a long career of public service. She resigned her state director job in 2008, after an Ohio Inspector General report found she had authorized illegitimate searches of state databases and had sent and received political e-mail on a state account.
“It’s hard to give that a whole lot of weight in light of what she has done for this community,” Eichenauer said. “It was one incident. You’ve got to put it in perspective. I think all of us have had things we wish we had done differently in our careers.”
Jones-Kelley declined numerous requests from the Dayton Daily News to discuss the actions that led to her 2008 resignation. She did offer written statements via e-mail on her commitment to service and her new role with the ADAMHS board.
“Family engagement has been a hallmark of my service and will be paramount as I look forward to my new role with the ADAMHS board,” she wrote. “This is an interesting time to be taking the helm of this important agency. Current headlines reflect that alcohol and other drugs, along with behavioral health challenges can no longer take a back seat in our prioritization of health and social services.”
Catherine Turcer, director of the Money in Politics Program for Ohio Citizen Action, believes Jones-Kelley deserves a second chance, but said second chances come with dual responsibilities.
“The citizens of Montgomery County need to be watching what she does very closely and ask for transparency in the job along with a commitment for a campaign-free zone,” Turcer said.
Terry Russell, executive director of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Ohio, calls himself cynical after working in the mental health field for 38 years, but he considers the hiring of Jones-Kelley by the ADAMHS board a positive step.
“My feeling is that she has the strongest background of anyone they could have found for the job,” Russell said.
Russell praised Szoke, the longtime ADAMHS executive director, for his dedication and genuine caring for the clientele they both serve, but said he believes it’s time for changes in leadership.
“Joe is a special kind of guy, but it’s time to bring in new folks, new leaders. We really need new blood,” Russell said. “We need individuals who have compassion for the people we are here to serve and I think (Helen Jones-Kelley) brings that.”
Retirement won’t be easy for Szoke, who says he’s doing the job he has always wanted to do. He says he’ll step down in confidence on at the end of June knowing Jones-Kelley will be on the job. A member of the ADAMHS board for nearly a decade and board chairman for two years, Jones-Kelley negotiated Szoke’s first contract when he was hired in 1990.