Tuesday, September 18, 2012

In appreciation: John Auerbach

It is a sign of the times that one of the most able, experienced, and thoughtful of our state's public administrators has had to take the fall for a series of events that would have been virtually impossible for him to prevent.  John Auerbach has been serving as Commissioner of Public Health in Massachusetts for six years.  Previously he served as head of the City of Boston Public Health Commission.  He has been a calm voice of reason and has received virtually unanimous praise for his dedication and professionalism.

For those of you from out of state, the scandal that erupted related to a scientist at the state's crime laboratory, who had falsified evidentiary reports for many years.  This has likely led to overly harsh judgments and criminal sentencing for a number of alleged criminals.  The state will now have to go through thousands of case records and work with prosecutors and defense counselors to sort out the mess.

In today's political world, there seems to be a need to assign blame when something like this happens.  Whether it might just have been a rogue scientist, or whether there may have been inadequate procedures in the laboratory, or both, is something worthy of review and correction, of course.  But the idea that the Commissioner, sitting astride a huge organization of departments and divisions, should be held accountable for this is ridiculous.

Here's the current organization chart for the state DPH.  Good luck even finding the division in which this scientist used to work.

John, being the ultimate gentleman and stand-up guy, issued this statement:

It is with deep regret and with a sense of responsibility to uphold the high ideals Governor Patrick demands that I announce today my resignation as Commissioner of the Department of Public Health. 

It is clear that there was insufficient quality monitoring, reporting and investigating on the part of supervisors and managers surrounding the former Department of Public Health drug lab in Jamaica Plain -- and ultimately, as Commissioner, the buck stops with me.

But the "high ideals" he cites of the Governor apparently do not include the concept that this could have happened in any administration (and indeed apparently started well before John's tenure).  Those ideals apparently do not include the concept that someone who has been an exemplary public servant deserves a chance (if he wanted) to try to remedy the underlying problem of the agency.  Those ideals apparently do not include any self-blame for the people still higher in the administration, who filed the extremely tight budgets for this agency for several years that may also have contributed to an inability to conduct proper oversight.

No, we seem need to find someone to punish . . . and quickly, to get through the news cycle and put this story behind the administration.  The Governor said:

Today, I accepted Commissioner John Auerbach’s resignation. The failures at the Department of Public Health drug lab are serious and the actions and inactions of lab management compounded the problem. The Commissioner recognizes that, as the head of DPH, he shares accountability for the breakdown in oversight.

Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino said, “For all the wonderful things he did over the years, his career should not be blemished by this one incident.”

Let's be clear, Mr. Mayor.  This is not a blemish on John's career, and to call it so misconstrues the nature of what has happened here.  They needed a fall guy, and he was gracious enough to accept the role without complaint.  We citizens owe him a debt of gratitude for years of dedicated public service.  Knowing John, I am sure that he will continue to make contributions to the public good wherever he goes and whatever he does.

Meanwhile, though, the Massachusetts political system goes on and eats its young.


Anonymous said...

Well said, Paul.

Ben said...

Seems reasonably obvious that at this exact moment they should be asking him to stay and cleanup the mess... why scapegoat a public servant ideally suited to fix the problems?

Anonymous said...

It's not just the MA system, nor is it just the political system. The tendency to find a scapegoat is deeply embedded in society, and the media actively aids and abets it - such as headlining articles with "Who is to blame for ______?"
People must realize that we are losing the few good and effective leaders we have when this happens, and they are often replaced by less talented people. It's a race to the bottom. Personally I think it's due to an inability to think critically instead of knee-jerk, as evidenced by the plaque I saw today: "Some drink at the fountain of knowledge. Others just gargle."


Pamela said...

The condemnation of John Auerbach is one more reason why fewer good people are going into government. It is a very sad commentary.

JRes said...

To blame John Auerbach, an exemplary public servant, for this problem is an example of the culture of blame and shame that that has been prevalent in our society. Fortunately, enlightened organizations are replacing it a "just culture" - one that recognizes that the actual cause of most problems is poorly designed and operated systems, not the individuals within them, and that solving these problems requires fixing the system. Unfortunately, this enlightment didn't extend to John. It will the state's loss.


Anonymous said...

Paul, Thank you for posting this about John, one of the finest public servants I've had the privilege of knowing. No one in the Commonwealth has been more dedicated to improving the public's health and promoting social justice than John. His resignation is a tremendous loss for all of us. Nancy