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Three of five Nashville Public Health bureau chiefs quit, one because of ‘conduct issues’

Three of the five high-ranking bureau directors at the Nashville Metro Public Health Department have resigned in the past month, including the top finance official who agency leaders said was pushed out due to “conduct issues.”

Peter Fontaine, who served as director of finance and administration for about two years, “had to go,” said Dr. Samni Areola, the deputy public health director, in a brief interview with The Tennessean Wednesday evening.

Public Health did not release more details about the allegations against Fontaine. He declined to comment when called Thursday morning.

Public Health also has received resignations from Muriel Hodgson-Vargas, the director of the bureau of community health, and Shoana Anderson, the director of the bureau of communicable disease and emergency response. Anderson’s departure comes as Public Health is combating a hepatitis A outbreak in Nashville, which has grown to 23 cases and threatens to spread further.

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Additionally, board members confirmed that Dr. Bill Paul, Nashville’s long-time public health director, will be replaced when his contract expires in July 2019. The Board of Health will not extend Paul’s contract because it is “time for a transition,” said board member Sam Felker. Paul recently emailed board members to say he would not attempt to keep his job, essentially confirming a decision that had already made, Felker said.

These four departures, each confirmed during a Board of Health meeting on Wednesday, represent an abrupt upheaval in the management of Metro Health, a critical government agency that appears to be struggling with morale, organization and employee turnover. At the meeting, board members reviewed anonymous, sometimes-scathing “exit interviews” from 21 Public Health employees who resigned over the past six months, several of whom alleged dysfunction and instability within the agency. 

One exit interview, which the Tennessean later confirmed to be written by Hodgson-Vargas, said the agency was stuck in a “toxic organizational culture” that allowed and even supported “bad behavior.” Another employee, who appeared to be a rank-and-file nurse, alleged that some coworkers watch Netflix or play cellphone games all day and said they witnessed “direct racism” and “questionable sexual advances” on the job.

Leafing through these comments, board members were worried.

“We could be sued, if any of these things are true at all. Or do we think this person just needed to vent?” said board member Dr. Margreete Johnston, a pediatrician. “In our business … if we had write-uplike this we would just be calling our malpractice person straightaway.”

In response to board concerns, Public Health officials tried to temper their fears. Les Bowron, the agency’s human resources manager, reminded the board members that the exit interviews all came from a small number of employees, all of whom had resigned.

“Frankly, in a survey of 21 people out of 530 employees, you get what you got – a third positive, a third neutral and a third negative,” Bowron said.

“You are going to have people who are dissatisfied. You are going to have people who maybe are not the right fit. And you are going to have people, and I hate to use an old lawyer phrase … but you are going to have people who are disgruntled. And you are going to have people who make legitimate points about their programs, and you have to take those seriously.”

Later in the meeting, board members specifically instructed Bowron to investigate claims of racism and sexual advances reported by one of the departing employees.

After Wednesday’s board meeting, officials said they did not believe the departure of the three bureau directors were related. Officials were initially hesitant to provide details about the cause of the resignations, but confirmed the circumstances of Fontaine’s departure through a slip of the tongue. 

Areola, the deputy director, told board members during the meeting that not all of the resignations were “negatives,” then later told a Tennessean reporter that one of the departing directors “had to go.” In response to that statement, Metro Health spokesman Brian Todd confirmed one of the directors had “conduct issues,” identifying that employee as a “he.” After the reporter pointed out that only one of the departing directors was a man, Todd confirmed that he was talking about Fontaine.

Brett Kelman is the health care reporter for The Tennessean. He can be reached at 615-259-8287 or at Follow him on Twitter at @brettkelman.

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