Portland Health & Human Services head ready for a new challenge

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PORTLAND — After more than 15 years in city government, the director of the city’s Department of Health & Human Services is ready for a change.

“Opportunities at this level don’t always come along,” Doug Gardner said June 13. “It is time to turn the page in terms of a career move.”

Gardner, whose last day is Friday, will become vice president of operations for Lewiston-based North Country Associates, a long-term care company. Gardner will be replaced on an interim basis by Julie Sullivan, now director of the department’s Public Health Division.

While he said the decision to leave was not difficult, Gardner added he will be leaving a post he enjoyed and a staff he valued.

“The experience I have gained will be invaluable,” he said. “I’m just looking to do something a little bit different.”

Gardner, formerly an administrator at the Barron Center off Brighton Avenue, was named department head in 2005, replacing Jerry Cayer.

“I had a bit of trepidation in terms of pursuing the position,” he said. “In retrospect, it was the best thing I could have done.”

As head of a multi-faceted department with about 450 employees and a budget of about $33 million, Gardner has overseen diverse responsibilities, including health care and shelter for the city’s homeless population, care for the city’s elderly, general assistance aid, services for refugees, and inspections of about 500 city restaurants.

The department is divided into four smaller divisions: Social Services, Public Health, the Office of Elder Affairs, and the Barron Center, a municipally owned long-term care facility.

“There have been challenges within each of the four (divisions),” Gardner said. “Fortunately, not all at the same time.”

Reactions to department measures to improve nutrition and fight obesity at the municipal level by removing high-sugar beverages and labelling menu choices may have surprised him the most, he said.

“Food is very personal. It shouldn’t have surprised me but it did,” Gardner said.

Combating homelessness in the city was his biggest challenge.

“I had personal goals around homelessness,” he said. “It was an area that was very new to me, and it was where my steepest learning curve was.”

The city’s homeless shelter population approached 500 this year, even after a task force on homelessness recommended in 2011 that getting people into homes should be a priority.

Gardner said the city looks at shelter lists to see who has the most frequent stays and then tries to find them housing. Developments including Avesta Housing’s Logan Place, and Community Housing of Maine’s Elm Terrace and Danforth on High provide stable housing, and then address the underlying mental health and substance abuse issues tenants may face.

Gardner said he appreciated the support from City Manager Mark Rees and former City Manager Joseph Gray, Mayor Michael Brennan, and city councilors as he confronted homelessness, and for their commitment to providing services for refugees and asylum seekers.

Assistance to refugees has been part of the department for longer than Gardner has been involved.

“I think Portland has been the most diverse city (in Maine) for decades,” Gardner said. “At least in my tenure, the council and city manager have welcomed that diversity.”

However, he said there are now more asylum seekers who are ineligible for state and federal aid, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and those who are still looking for general assistance aid because they are also not allowed to work.

“We are stepping in where we can,” Gardner said, adding he is “not certain” if the department will follow the Maine Department of Health and Human Services order to stop providing general assistance to illegal immigrants. Gardner said he expects the order to be challenged in court.

As one of four cities in the state with designated authority to conduct restaurant inspections, the city created a new health inspector position almost three years ago. The expanded focus was not always popular with business owners, but welcomed by Gardner.

“It is providing the resources to inspect and adequately protect the public health,” he said.

Gardner, who is married and the father of two daughters, said he is looking forward to a family vacation before starting his new job.

“I learned something new every day and I continue to,” he said. “I will miss that.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.