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Dan Morain: A Mr. Fix-it answers call, again

Published Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012

One in an occasional series

At 75, Cliff Allenby could be spending his days playing golf, except his golf cart has a flat, and it has been that way for two years.

Oh, and he's busy overseeing a top-to-bottom restructuring of the California Department of Mental Health on behalf of a governor for whom he worked back in the 1970s.

Allenby is a throwback to a time when government was viewed, at least on occasion, as a solution, not the problem. A reminder of what public service should be, he has retired and unretired three times, called back into action by governors who want to fix broken departments.

His latest unretirement began in December 2010, when Diana Dooley, Brown's health and human services secretary, asked him to fill in for a few months at the Department of Mental Health until she could find a permanent director. Neither had any idea how deep the problems were at the department.

"We couldn't tell how short of money we were," Allenby said.

That was especially scary for a green-eyeshade guy who had spent 23 years in the Department of Finance, starting in 1963 when Brown's father was governor, continuing through Ronald Reagan's time, Jerry Brown's first administration and into George Deukmejian's tenure.

"Reagan was the most liberal and Jerry Brown was the most conservative, if growth of government is the yardstick," he told me over a glass of wine at Gallagher's. "Don't write that down."

Sorry, Cliff, it's too good a line.

Besides, that assessment is directly relevant to his current project. To fully grasp what he confronted, Allenby tapped a couple of old Department of Finance hands, Manny and Shelley Mateo, who between them have 66 years of state experience. They delivered a 271-page report that described the not-good, the extremely bad and the utterly ugly.

State hospitals care for 6,400 patients, most of whom have committed crimes, many of them violent. Their illnesses are too complex to be handled by counties, and they cannot fend for themselves.

"These are not the type of patients that researchers include in clinical trials, and the literature guiding their treatment is very thin," the report said, quoting a state hospital official.

A federal court monitor supposedly was overseeing four of the five state hospitals, but the situation worsened. Assaults against staff increased, culminating in October 2010, when a Napa State Hospital patient strangled a psychiatric technician on the hospital grounds. And the department's $1.2 billion budget went awry and the deficit hit $120 million in 2010.

"The management team lost perspective," the report said. And "headquarters has lacked effective leadership, teamwork and communications, particularly as it relates to fiscal control." And "there is no shared culture of cost containment in the department as a whole, much less for patient care." And so on.

The solution fashioned by Allenby and his team is a realignment of responsibility. If approved by the Legislature, the department will focus exclusively on operating the five state hospitals, plus psychiatric programs at two state prisons.

The proposed Department of State Hospitals would shed bureaucratic oversight of county mental health departments. Although the Department of Health Care Services would assume some additional duties, California's 58 counties would gain greater authority over the $1 billion-plus generated by a tax approved by voters in 2004.

This is a state that has one county with 10 million people and one with fewer than 10,000 people. One size doesn't fit all. "You're going to have excellence, you're going to have mediocrity, and you're going to have failure," Allenby said.

There's hope in that statement, and resignation. Mostly, the observation is drawn from experience. Allenby knows how California used to be. He bent elbows with Frank Lanterman, co-author of the 1967 law that emptied state hospitals of most patients, with the promise that there would be money to care for them in the counties. In a sense, Allenby's current effort is a continuation of the process Lanterman started.

Allenby was in the finance department in 1978 when Proposition 13 slashed property taxes and shifted power to Sacramento, away from counties. He delivered the news in 1982 to Gov.-elect Deukmejian that the state faced a $2 billion deficit.

Seeing his willingness to speak truth to power, Deukmejian decided to keep Allenby and in time appointed him secretary of health and human services.

Sacramento attorney Steve Merksamer, who was Deukmejian's chief of staff, views Allenby as the last of a class of public servants who were "nonpartisan and non-ideological," who served Republicans and Democrats, and kept the state running.

"Cliff Allenby represents the best of what professional civil service used to be," Merksamer said.

Allenby left government and came back, lobbied for a time, and retired for the last and toughest time in 2006 to care for Sandy, his wife of 51 years, as she fought cancer and lost.

Dooley had known Allenby from the first Brown administration when she was Brown's legislative affairs secretary. Knowing of his abilities, she asked him to take on a new job, acting mental health director for 90 days, no more. Every 90 days, she has asked him to stay a little longer. He plans to remain until the realignment is completed.

One of Allenby's old bosses, Reagan, declared that government is the problem, not the solution. It's safe to assume that Allenby was not who he had in mind. But that sort of rhetoric has become second nature to too many politicians.

"We're paying a high price for that," Dooley said, noting that it pushed too many smart people away from government. "The depth of the bench within state government is an issue that has a lot of people concerned."

Allenby describes himself as being older than dirt. It's an exaggeration. But he is old-school and teaches that there is honor in state service. Think about the 6,400 state hospital patients. If not for civil servants, who would care for them?

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