The former head of Colorado’s new Behavioral Health Administration has filed a federal complaint alleging she was fired due to racial discrimination, though some state lawmakers say she performed poorly in the job.
Dr. Morgan Medlock was hired from the Washington, D.C., Department of Behavioral Health in January 2022 to head the Behavioral Health Administration, which was created to better coordinate Colorado’s mental health and addiction programs.
But the agency has had a rocky start, with the legislature pushing back some deadlines this year to allow for more public comment and time to write the agency’s rules.
Medlock was fired in April and replaced on an interim basis by Michelle Barnes, executive director of the Colorado Department of Human Services. At the time, Mental Health Colorado, Vail Behavioral Health and two members of the state’s behavioral health task force wrote letters to Gov. Jared Polis’ office supporting the decision to appoint Barnes, while some members of the stakeholder advisory group supported retaining Medlock.
In a complaint to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed on Aug. 30, Medlock alleged that Barnes and other senior leaders in Polis’ administration were “racially hostile” from the early months of her tenure. The complaint said Medlock, who is Black, felt mistreated by other members of the administration, who are mostly white.
“From the beginning, it was some kind of power struggle,” she said in an interview.
Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Democrat who will represent parts of Adams County in the state senate next year, said the complaint mischaracterizes what happened.
She and other lawmakers had heard concerns from Behavioral Health Administration employees that the culture was “toxic” and from service providers that they wouldn’t have contracts in place in time, possibly leading to interruptions in care, she said.
“The concern was that the BHA was going to fail,” she said. “We could not afford for the BHA to fail.”
Representatives for the Behavioral Health Administration referred questions to Polis’ office. Maria De Cambra, director of communications and community engagement for the governor, said the EEOC hasn’t contacted the state about the complaint.
“If they do reach out to our office, our legal team will cooperate and vigorously defend against any allegations,” she said in a statement.
Some EEOC complaints are dismissed for procedural reasons, such as that the alleged victim waited too long to file it. If EEOC staff determine the complaint has met the procedural requirements, the commission has 180 days to investigate it. The complainant can choose whether to have the agency issue a ruling, or to take the case before an administrative judge. Complainants also can choose to file lawsuits separately at certain points in the process.
EEOC complaints are generally not made public, unless the agency finds evidence of discrimination, though the person who filed a complaint can choose to share it.
Medlock, who shared her complaint with The Denver Post, alleged that two of her subordinates wanted her to be a “public face” for the agency while they handled most of its operations. She also said her white colleagues “challenged” her authority in meetings and didn’t intervene when others used racial slurs in her presence.
Rep. Judy Amabile, a Boulder Democrat who sponsored the bill pushing back certain deadlines for the agency, said she didn’t know if anyone had mistreated Medlock, but said the Behavioral Health Administration was behind on the work it was supposed to have done by early 2023. Advocates for people with serious mental illnesses, like schizophrenia, also were concerned that the agency under Medlock wasn’t putting enough emphasis on their needs, she said.
“I don’t know what was in anybody’s mind,” Amabile said. “I do know that from the perspective of the people the BHA was meant to serve, the patients, there was a disconnect.”
Medlock denied missing deadlines and pointed to listening sessions she held around the state. A performance review she shared was generally favorable, with its main recommendation that she and Barnes work on their relationship as colleagues.
She also alleged Barnes attempted to undermine her by circulating a survey to Behavioral Health Administration employees. That survey found about 45% were dissatisfied with the agency’s senior leadership, 40% were satisfied and 15% had no opinion. State departments conduct annual surveys assessing employees’ level of engagement in their jobs.
The EEOC complaint said the conflict with others in the administration began to escalate in March, when Medlock wanted to hire a Black woman for the open job of chief of staff at the Behavioral Health Administration, and Polis’ chief of staff Alec Garnett disagreed with her choice. The complaint said “intense” meetings followed, culminating in her firing a few weeks later. The candidate’s name and previous experience weren’t included in the complaint.
“It was an incredibly painful experience,” Medlock said of the conflicts. “The power dynamic that women of color often experience is you can be in power, but not be in control.”
Michaelson Jenet said she and other lawmakers got Garnett involved when they went to him with the concerns they’d heard. The decision to fire Medlock wasn’t based on personality conflicts, but on poor performance, she said.
“I think that it unfortunately had to happen,” Michaelson Jenet said.
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