Reformer removed

Environmental health director led progressive programs, resigned after mysterious investigation

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rebecca@sfbg.com

A San Francisco public health official, who's earned national recognition in his field for launching progressive environmental health initiatives, announced his resignation in late December under bizarre circumstances.

Dr. Rajiv Bhatia, who served as director of environmental health, left his employer of 17 years after being subjected to a months-long internal investigation he described as baseless.

Once the Department of Public Health concluded its inquiry, Bhatia faced no charges of misconduct. He resigned after securing a settlement agreement, under which the city paid him $155,000.

In an open letter circulated to colleagues and reporters, Bhatia announced he was leaving and commented on an internal cultural shift he said had impeded his work, which examined the health consequences of air pollution, poor housing conditions, low-wage employment, and disparities in life expectancy by neighborhood, among other things.

"Unfortunately, changes in the Department's organization and culture no longer support my pursuit of vigorous and community-oriented public health regulation and advocacy," Bhatia wrote.

"I understand that the new leadership may not share my broad vision of environmental public health," he went on, referencing a 2010 leadership transition in which Director Barbara Garcia took the reins from former department chief Mitch Katz. "Yet, it is deeply disconcerting that they chose to subject me to an aggressive and public investigation into groundless allegations."

Colleen Chawla, deputy director of the health department, said she was prevented from commenting on Bhatia's resignation or statement, because the issue constituted a personnel matter.

Bhatia spearheaded a series of innovative programs that went beyond the scope of conventional public health practices.

"Rajiv was doing pioneering work," said Larry Adelman, co-director of documentary filmmaking company California Newsreel and producer of "Unnatural Causes," a four-part PBS series on health inequity.

"He was concerned with closing the growing gap between health outcomes," Adelman said, noting that the poor have a lower life expectancy on average than those with higher incomes. "I know other public health departments were looking to his work and trying to learn from him."

Bob Prentice, who served as DPH deputy director until 1999, sounded a similar note, saying Bhatia's environmental health work was based on the idea that "fundamental inequalities in life produce inequities in health."

Bhatia's departure is only the latest in a series of resignations submitted over the last year or so, causing some to question whether Garcia's philosophy or management style triggered the departure of more than a half-dozen high-ranking health department staff members.

"Is this about a management culture that wants to suppress the kinds of things Rajiv has represented?" Prentice wondered.

The environmental health director first learned he was under investigation in June, when he returned after a vacation only to learn he'd been locked out of his office.

"They finished doing their investigation in August," Bhatia explained in a recent phone interview. "I was removed from all roles. They refused to allow me to go back to my work."

Instead, he says he was directed to work on "trivial special assignments" that had little to do with the goals of the Program on Health Equity and Sustainability, which he'd created.

Bhatia says he still has not been told exactly what city officials hoped to find when they initially placed him under investigation, or what the allegation was. But based on the questions they asked him, "it appears what they were investigating was a program ... initiated by a mayor's executive directive," he said, referencing a food policy directive initiated under former Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Comments

collective responsibility among those appointed by our elected officials.

A loose cannon is always going to struggle where it is important to tow a party line in support of a shared vision.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 07, 2014 @ 5:05 pm

I'd hope that the bureaucrats in a major city would be part of the "100,000 flowers that bloom," each using their talents to deliver and foster innovative programs and services. Mayor Lee is a Willie Brown protege so it's not surprising he wants everyone marching in lock-step formation.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 07, 2014 @ 5:54 pm

And if you frustrate the boss, you end up without a job.

Same everywhere. Nothing to see here.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 07, 2014 @ 6:06 pm
Posted by Guest on Jan. 07, 2014 @ 6:17 pm

We all can agree whistleblower programs are necessary mechanisms for reducing government fraud and abuse. What checks and balances are in place for false accusations? What was Barbara Garcia's role in this?

As a tax-paying citizen, what was the total cost of this witch-hunting exercise? What of the city attorney fees charged to DPH and DPH staff time allocated for digging up "evidence"?

A nearly 5 month investigation to find nothing? Doesn't SFDPH have anything better to do?

Posted by JoeD on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 7:55 am

Why can we not simply fire officials who make trouble and are not on message?

Posted by Guest on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 8:05 am

Yes, let's fire individuals who actually think critically and use their platform to actually push for a just and healthier society.

Paper-pushing bureaucracies = fail whale

Posted by Guest on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 8:19 am
Posted by Guest on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 8:34 am

if you read the story. The department head fired the employee.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 8:46 am

That is why it is called a chain of command.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 10:32 am

In the tripartite divided model of government, the legislative branch sets policy and the executive branch implements it. The Mayor is clearly overstepping his authority when he uses his personnel discretion to bypass legislative policies.

Posted by marcos on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 9:21 am

Unless a city employee is directly elected, the Mayor can fire him or her. Or have them fired.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 10:33 am

scoreboard:
1 - status quo/neo-liberal agenda/free-market public health
0 - progressive, healthier city

People should be angry that one of the leading advocates for a healthy San Francisco got axed. Rajiv and his department spoke truth to power and held elected officials, developers, and restaurants accountable.

Say hello to weaker air pollution laws, noisier streets, less open data.

Rajiv's replacement? Ask your supervisor.

Posted by GuestX on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 8:08 am

will always be less than stellar.

What's new about that?

Posted by Guest on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 8:21 am

Can you now repeat that in German for us?

Posted by CitiReport on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 9:51 am
Posted by Guest on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 10:42 am

If the company has more than 2000 employees, then half the board of directors must be elected by the workers. When you have that, the corporation becomes a lot more ethical and responsive to human needs. Doesn't seem to hurt them competitively either. Probably helps.

I recently read a story about a German auto company that wanted to locate a production facility in Tennessee. Seems the workers over in Germany don't want to play the divide and conquer game either, even when it's not themselves who benefit. They insisted that the American workers have representation on their board as well!

US politicians in Tennessee were apoplectic with rage at such a thing. They put the kibosh on that plan because of some legal technicality, insisting that in the US, the only representation workers could have was through a union. So the Germans promptly set about organizing the workers into a union. Of course the US ruling/political class hated the idea, because they were afraid it would set a bad (read: good) precedent.

Don't know how it all worked out in the end, but the story just shows the irony of using Germany as an example of authoritarianism or something, when we're living in the most undemocratic state in the western world right here. If only we were more like Germany!

Posted by Greg on Jan. 09, 2014 @ 9:02 am
Posted by Guest on Jan. 09, 2014 @ 9:19 am

You know that's just intellectual masturbation.

If I spoke German, I'd love to. I actually have distant relatives who moved there without speaking German, and they're doing a heck of a lot better than they would be here.

I've actually entertained the thought of leaving (actually made a serious push for it at one point), but there are many, many reasons why one might stay in a place that's generally not the best. Family, work, etc.

I may yet do it someday, but right now it's just not practical. In the meantime, there's nothing wrong with looking at other countries and seeing what ideas work to make people's lives better. Only an ignorant jackass would think that we have nothing to learn from other countries.

Posted by Greg on Jan. 09, 2014 @ 12:28 pm

how great some other nation is compared to here. And if I was that down on my homeland I would make every effort to go where the grass is greener, supposedly.

German isn't that hard to learn for an English speaker and a total immersion class would give you a working ability in a few weeks.

Or perhaps you just take for granted everything that is great here?

Posted by Guest on Jan. 09, 2014 @ 1:24 pm

SF just lost a tireless advocate for a fair and just San Francisco to petty politics. What else is new?

Posted by Guest on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 8:11 am

Politics and money trump science and social needs every time. The machine fears the informed, clean functionary who pushes policies contrary to its economic interests in a depoliticized fashion backed up by unassailable research.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 8:25 am

First off, who thought it could get worse than Mitch Katz?

Second, Bhatia and his team were remarkably consistent in their putting the interests of San Franciscans first. Clearly that could not be tolerated by corporate toadies beholden to the Brown/Newsom/Lee cavalcade of corruption.

You are expendable.

Posted by marcos on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 9:22 am

caught you posting to political website all day long at work, he might decide to fire you anyway.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 10:34 am

Most firms with their eye on success at their mission would not throw away talent for such a picayune reason. Since Ed Lee has no interest in his government succeeding on the merits, that is no interest in delivering public health services, then firing Bhatia was easy. Since Ed Lee did want to give business a free pass on causing health threats to San Francisco, he axed Bhatia.

Posted by marcos on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 10:52 am

have had, but rather that his role was also political and, since he was not elected and Ed Lee was, his politics have to be consistent with the directions from above.

Civil servants have to work with their political boss regardless of who it is and whether they agree with their policies or not.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 11:06 am

The settlement indicates that there was no wrongdoing on Bhatia's part and that Ed Lie's action was arbitrary and capricious, costing San Franciscans not only our health, but $155K. Where is the whining about throwing other people's money around for your own aggrandizement?

Posted by marcos on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 12:03 pm

His sins may have been enough for a firing but not at the level to be sure of a criminal conviction

Posted by Guest on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 2:40 pm

They paid him to leave.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 09, 2014 @ 8:32 am
Posted by Guest on Jan. 09, 2014 @ 9:17 am

“Time and time again does the pride of man influence his very own fall. While denying it, one gradually starts to believe that he is the authority, or that he possesses great moral dominion over others, yet it is spiritually unwarranted. By that point he loses steam; in result, he falsely begins trying to prove that unwarranted dominion by seizing the role of a condemner.”
― Criss Jami, Salomé: In Every Inch In Every Mile

Posted by Guest on Jan. 08, 2014 @ 11:49 am

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