Embattled Mecklenburg County Health Director Marcus Plescia has resigned effective Aug. 4, County Manager Dena Diorio said Tuesday night.
Plescia came under public scrutiny in February when the Observer first reported that the agency failed to notify 185 women about their risk for cervical cancer following abnormal Pap smears.
Commissioners questioned his management after it was learned that employees knew about the lapses for nearly a month before Plescia was informed.
The county’s human resources department investigated and concluded in March that the Health Department’s management showed a “lack of leadership” and failed to respond to concerns raised by employees.
Commissioner Jim Puckett said Tuesday that Plescia’s departure suggests officials were justified in calling for an outside investigation after the Pap smear errors.
“I hope we continue to investigate and ensure we uncover any and all issues that have led to our current situation and that we make all appropriate changes in policy and, if needed, personnel,” he said.
Plescia did not return a phone call seeking comment late Tuesday.
In recent weeks, Plescia and his supporters have defended his performance.
Plescia has repeatedly said that his leadership and track record have been misportrayed. While acknowledging the Pap smear errors were embarrassing, he insisted that the health clinics were well-run.
At a recent commissioners’ committee meeting, Plescia said an ongoing state review of the agency has found no major deficiencies so far.
Plescia also has denied criticism from current and former employees who allege he created a “culture of fear” in which employees were afraid to disclose bad news to management.
“During my tenure here, I have also sought to address assertions of previous bullying and discrimination by taking steps to change the executive leadership team and by seeking diversity,” he wrote in a May 9 email to staff to address media coverage of the department. “The executive leadership team is now comprised of two white males and four females, two of whom are African American.”
“These and other changes have made a difference. The Department employee survey results have improved significantly over the last three years and now exceed county averages on most indicators.”
In May, two Mecklenburg County commissioners began asking whether Plescia demoted a top nursing manager for helping report problems with notifying patients of their Pap test results.
Nursing Director Jacqueline Glenn in January ordered staff members to notify the county’s risk management and human resources offices about the problem, but she was later removed from agency’s executive leadership team.
Glenn kept her title, but the move was widely seen as a demotion by nurses and by African-Americans in the department, who were concerned about representation at executive level. Glenn is African-American. The executive team sets policy goals for the department, and positions are coveted because members have direct access to the health director.
In an email to Glenn, Plescia wrote that the change was needed in response to the Pap test failures and was not intended to be punitive.
And this month, some commissioners said they are angry health department employees gave operating permits this month to public swimming pools without reinspecting water quality and equipment to ensure last season’s safety violations were fixed.
‘New leadership needed’
In a statement announcing Plescia’s resignation, Diorio thanked him “for his leadership and for championing Public Health’s community wellness initiatives. However, Dr. Plescia realizes that new leadership is needed to improve our processes and produce better outcomes for the residents who depend on Public Health every day.”
Plescia is paid about $240,000 a year, making him one of the top-paid figures in county government.
When he started as health director in February 2014, he brought a strong reputation as an advocate for the poor.
From medical school at UNC-Chapel Hill to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where he ran a cancer prevention program, he focused on the margins of society. He treated AIDS patients in the South Bronx, N.Y., during his residency training in the early 1990s. He spent time as a doctor on the Cherokee reservation in Western North Carolina.
In Mecklenburg, current and former employees said, Plescia has attempted to mold an “academic” health department focused on broad policies rather than the fundamental operation of clinics. They said he describes the approach as “low-touch, high impact.”
For example, Plescia successfully lobbied leaders in 2015 to ban smoking from the grounds of government buildings and most parks and greenways, including places such as the NASCAR Hall of Fame, the Spectrum Center and CATS transportation centers. The move was meant to let government set a healthy example for the community, officials said.
But current and former employees say Plescia was brought down by his refusal or inability to properly oversee clinics for the poor on Billingsley Road in southeast Charlotte and Beatties Ford Road in west Charlotte.
Nurses, who make up about 300 of the agency’s 800 employees, grew increasingly disenchanted with his leadership style and the direction of the department, they say. Some employees say patients at the clinics have unacceptably long waits for appointments, sometimes receive inaccurate results from tests for pregnancy and STDs, and do not get needed follow up after treatment.