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Council Seeks Answers On Health Department's Recent Reshuffle Of Responsibilities

melba moore
Courtesy of The Cincinnati Health Department
Cincinnati Health Commissioner Melba Moore recently had the day-to-day operations of her department assigned to someone else. City Council wanted answers.

After a news report revealed that Cincinnati Health Commissioner Melba Moore is no longer running the day-to-day operations of the city's health department, council sought answers from Dr. Phil Lichtenstein, president of the Board of Health, about what happened in reshuffling her responsibilities to her junior.  

According to a May 17 report in the Enquirer, the change "raised concern among some workers, union officials and at least one City Council member, who fear shuffling the leadership structure at the health department during a global pandemic might not be a good idea."  

Others felt her authority was being undermined by the Board of Health, which runs the city's health department and oversees its leadership.  

Moore came to Cincinnati from her hometown of St. Louis, where she was health commissioner for 15 years. During her two-year tenure in Cincinnati, she has allegedly come under fire by some for her management style, though during the Tuesday meeting Lichtenstein declined to provide details.  

Lichtenstein said that in early April, Mayor John Cranley requested the board consider freeing up Commissioner Moore's time in order for her to concentrate on the coming coronavirus pandemic.  

Lichtenstein said after speaking with Moore, she agreed to the plan to put the day-to-day operations of the health department to her then Assistant Health Commissioner Domonic Hopson, who was promoted to CEO, a title Lichtenstein said is required in exchange for receiving federal funding to assist with operations. 

Hopson's title - and as some put it, "inexperience" - is what seems to have concerned some within the health department and others who work with it. 

Lichtenstein said Hopson is reporting to Moore on a near-daily basis and that she still weighs in on a number of activities happening in her department.  

"Mr. Hopson is not being catapulted or groomed for [her] role," he said. "Mr. Hopson has no interest whatsoever in becoming the health commissioner and there is no member of the board who would consider him a viable candidate for the position." 

Without Moore present at Tuesday's meeting, it was unclear how much say she had in the plan to, as Councilwoman Jan-Michele Lemon-Kearney put it, "demote" her.  

But Lichtenstein maintained that Moore would fully resume her responsibility of handling the day-to-day operations in two months.  

Members of the Center for Closing the Health Gap and CODE, a city employees' union, spoke out in her defense.  

Lichtenstein maintained no one is trying to get rid of Ms. Moore.  

"I think she is wonderful. I want her to stay," he said.  

Councilman Wendell Young said the optics on this were bad, given that Moore is an African American woman. Young said Cincinnati does not have a good track record when it comes to supporting African American leaders, citing the firings of former Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell and, more recently, former City Manager Harry Black, both let go under Cranley.  

"It does not appear that it was the board that felt the need to do this," Young said. "It only happened after you got the call from the mayor."  

Councilwoman Lemon Kearney called the whole thing "a mess," and said it was a bigger issue of people being set up to fail.  

"These two people really seem pitted against each other," she said. "(Hopson) shouldn't be the scapegoat here; he didn't ask for this position." 

Jennifer Merritt brings 20 years of "tra-digital" journalism experience to WVXU.