Brian Harris

Brian O. Harris is CEO of Clinica Sierra Vista.

A former board member at Clinica Sierra Vista has sent a letter of resignation highly critical of the community health center network's leadership, raising some questions about its ability to serve those in need.

The March 6 letter by John M. Means, a local community college administrator who served on Clinica's board from February 2018 until he stepped down last month, said CEO Brian O. Harris has had an "incredibly chaotic" and directionless first year on the job, during which major decisions have been made without first consulting the board.

FORMER EMPLOYEES’ ALLEGATIONS

It also refers to allegations against Harris by former employees, saying Means felt he had to resign after becoming "deeply troubled" by a recent meeting at which the board refused to investigate the unspecified claims.

Means said in a phone interview Wednesday the claims involve sexual or workplace harassment. He declined to be more specific, citing concerns about the confidentiality of closed-door board meetings.

In 2004, Harris was named as a defendant in an employment and sexual discrimination lawsuit when he was CEO of Klamath Open Door Clinic in Oregon, according to court documents. Filed by a woman who was second-in-charge at the clinic, the lawsuit alleges Harris made offensive remarks about women and hired and fired them based on their appearance.

Meanwhile, Means' letter goes on to list a host of concerns about Harris' actions at Clinica, from legal maneuvers limiting former employees' ability to speak about their experiences there to an allegation that Harris' plans to set administrators' compensation levels without checking industry norms.

BOARD CONSULTATION CLAIMS

It also describes an alleged pattern of failing to provide board members a factual basis for major changes he would make.

"I was astonished that the board agreed with him without any evidence that things were drastically wrong and required changes," he said.

Harris did not respond to repeated requests for comment Wednesday.

A letter attributed to Clinica board President Jerry M. Shipman and provided to The Californian by Laura Slawny, a public relations professional working with Harris, says Means' resignation letter "mischaracterized and misrepresented the actions of our board and our corporation."

The letter says Shipman has no knowledge about the claim regarding allegations by former employees. But it says Clinica has a lawyer, human resources department and a board committee in place to investigate such charges.

As for the claim Harris plans to adjust employees' compensation without surveying others in the industry, the letter says the board has had talks of its own aimed at offering similar benefits to senior staff in order to attract the best qualified employees.

The letter also criticizes as "laughable" Means' allegation that Harris' first year was chaotic. It says a new CEO can be a jolt to any organization.

"Mr. Means failed to acknowledge the numerous problems that Mr. Harris inherited from the prior organization leadership — issues in which leadership and the board are still trying to fix," the letter states.

Shipman did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Two other board members reached by phone Wednesday referred questions about Means' resignation to Harris. A third, board member Robbie Gerds, said, "I’m not commenting other than to say I do not agree with what (Means) said." She declined to elaborate.

CHANGES UNDER NEW LEADERSHIP

Harris took over as CEO in early 2018 following the departure of longtime CEO Steve Schilling. Harris was chosen to lead the organization after a nationwide search.

Under Harris' leadership, Means said, Clinica has substantially reduced the scope of services offered by Clinica, which says it provides primary medical, dental and behavioral health services to about 200,000 people in Kern, Fresno and Inyo counties.

Clinica's website says it has 16 medical care, five dental and six behavioral health facilities in Kern, plus 10 medical care, two dental and six behavioral health facilities in Fresno County.

Harris has eliminated cardiology, chiropractic, podiatry and gastroenterology services, Means said, as well as X-ray and ultrasound at several Clinica sites. All the organization's roughly 20 patient ombudsmen have been let go, he said, and dental services are no longer available to new patients.

NON-DISPARAGEMENT AGREEMENTS

In addition, Means said, Harris has removed many top administrators and paid them severance packages measuring in the tens of thousands of dollars. In exchange for these payments, Means said, employees had to sign "non-disparagement agreements" spelling out stiff legal consequences if they share unflattering information about Clinica.

"I think Mr. Harris is very sensitive about anybody saying anything that might be a criticism, and he will go to great lengths to silence them," he said.

An update Harris emailed to Clinica staff on Feb. 19 opens with an "apology" to staff for taking important actions soon after his arrival at the organization's headquarters in Kern.

"I was wrong about CSV," he wrote. "When I came here 12 months ago, I thought I understood the challenges with CSV. ... I should have asked more questions and slowed down on making any major changes."

John Cox can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf. Sign up at Bakersfield for free newsletters about local business.

(3) comments

KenWitham

Having an exiting employee sign an NDA in return for severance pay is not inappropriate or someone trying to hide something. Anyone who thinks that hasn't spoken to many attorneys involved in employment law.

Nevermind

Yeah, it's called bribery. Standard procedure.

Vavoom

if there is nothing to hide, why have an nda in the picture at all? leave it out completely. if you run on ethics and doing right over wrong... you dont need to bully others into staying silent during employment or after. nda are for crooked people. csv will slowly sink... bye bye

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