Arundel health officer's dismissal could spur change in law

  • The Arundel County Council voted 4-2 to oust county health officer Angela S. Wakhweya.
The Arundel County Council voted 4-2 to oust county health officer… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kim…)
August 11, 2013|By Pamela Wood, The Baltimore Sun

State lawmakers are considering changing personnel laws for county health officers, following the messy and public firing of Anne Arundel's health officer earlier this year.

"We need to move forward," Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk told attendees of a meeting in Annapolis Wednesday of a group called the Caucus of African-American Leaders.

Pena-Melnyk, a Democrat who represents Prince George's and Anne Arundel, said she'll seek to form a work group in the House of Delegates to review how health officers are hired and fired.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Annapolis Democrat, said if there are problems with the process, then a review may be warranted.

In January, Dr. Angela Wakhweya was dismissed as health officer for Anne Arundel County, though it remains unclear why.

County health departments are overseen both by county officials and the state's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. To dismiss a county health officer, it takes agreement by the state, the county executive and the County Council.

That came as a surprise to members of the County Council, said Councilman Peter Smith, a Severn Democrat who attended Wednesday's meeting. The County Council ultimately went along with the state's recommendation to dismiss Wakhweya, though some councilmen expressed discomfort with the process at the time.

Smith said the process "was unfair to Dr. Wakhweya."

"The process did not serve her," he said.

Wakhweya, who is a native of Uganda, was appointed as health officer in 2011 by then-County Executive John R. Leopold.

Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, the state's health secretary who was the featured speaker on Wednesday, said he would not object to a review of the laws. Though he said he couldn't offer any details about Wakhweya's removal, he said he'd welcome changes in the laws.

"You will not find me objecting to changing the law," he said.

Several people at Wednesday's meeting spoke in favor of Wakhweya and expressed frustration that they know little about why she was removed.

They also brought up broad issues in the county's Health Department: a lack of diversity among senior staff, unfair treatment of minority employees and employees making negative comments about the minority population they serve.

After the meeting, Wakhweya said she appreciates the support, especitally from her former employees.

"It is very revealing that the community is not one to let this issue rest," said Wakhweya, who now works as director of school health for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

She said she never had a full explanation of why she was dismissed, and never had a chance to respond to any criticism that may have been leveled against her.

"I never had a full answer," Wakhweya said.

She said she hopes her situation can lead to changes in the law that make a smoother path for other county health officers. She suggested health officers could be hired on contracts -- such as school system superintendents -- for a fixed amount of time with specific objectives.

"Any taxpayer is right in demanding the process be made clear," she said.

Anne Arundel's Health Department is currently led by Dr. Jinlene Chan, who is acting health officer.

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