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Outspoken Pinellas health official asked to resign

Hired three years ago to overhaul Pinellas County's health and poverty programs, the director of the county's health and community services department said she's stepping down after she was asked to resign.

Gwendolyn Warren, 63, was brought in to be a change agent — that's how County Administrator Bob LaSala and the county commissioners saw her at first, and that's how she saw herself.

But Warren's outspoken style and some of the changes she made, particularly shifts in funding, turned her into a divisive figure, with defenders on one side and a chorus of critics on the other. Last week, she said, she was asked to resign, but opted instead to retire in June, a decision that county officials accepted.

In an interview Monday, Warren said she was proud of what she'd accomplished. In her three years, she oversaw a detailed study of poverty in Pinellas, secured $5 million in federal funding for a medical clinic for the homeless in mid-county, and pushed the county to move away from simply housing and feeding the homeless to offering job training.

"If my efforts to improve community health may have upset someone, I'm sorry, but that was my job," Warren said. "I wouldn't change anything about what I did."

LaSala refused to say whether he asked for Warren's resignation and did not give a reason for her dismissal.

"I'm telling you that Gwendolyn has announced her retirement. That's the best thing to say at this point," he said Monday. Warren's dismissal comes about a month after a group of her employees sent an anonymous email to the commission, attacking her management style and calling their work environment "toxic and unproductive." In response, the county's human resources department began interviewing Warren's staff, an internal audit of sorts that is still ongoing, LaSala said.

Before she came to Pinellas, Warren was the deputy county manager for Fulton County, Ga., and, before that, had worked in social services in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Hired by LaSala, she was promoted last year and given a raise after her department was combined with several others, including community development and code enforcement. Her current salary is $155,000.

But navigating politics, internal and otherwise, wasn't Warren's strong suit.

A year ago, after staff reductions in the county's veterans service office led to a backlog of claims, military veterans crowded before the county commission to complain. Warren hired replacements, and the backlog was eventually reduced, but the episode left some commissioners embarrassed and defensive of Pinellas' care for its large population of veterans.

Other decisions Warren made about which nonprofit organizations to fund, and how much to give them, angered social service groups and hospitals.

"The fact that the county believes that I have done enough is okay with me," Warren said. "I feel that I've done enough."

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at aphillips@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779.

Outspoken Pinellas health official asked to resign 03/10/14 [Last modified: Monday, March 10, 2014 11:06pm]
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