Department of Behavioral Wellness Executive Director Alice Gleghorn | Credit: Courtesy

Alice Gleghorn notified the county supervisors last week in closed session that she was stepping down as executive director of the Department of Behavioral Wellness after six and a half years at the helm of one of the county’s most challenging departments. 

When Gleghorn was hired in December 2014, the department was a hotbed of despair and dysfunction for patients, staff, and county supervisors alike. With a no-nonsense style, Gleghorn is credited — even by her critics — for creating order where chaos once reigned. But even her admirers also concede that Gleghorn’s “soft skills” could at times use some polishing. 

Last Wednesday, Gleghorn was all optimism and accomplishments as she unveiled her last budget presentation to the supervisors, detailing, for example, how the county had secured 32 new long-term beds for those experiencing acute mental health challenges at the Champion facility that opened just months ago in Lompoc. In addition, Gleghorn cited the 350 new slots opened up for those dealing with drug addiction under her watch, the 1,136 lives saved from drug overdoses in the past five years, and the creation of 118 new residential mental-health beds. 

In the past year, Gleghorn said, COVD has posed significant challenges finding room in the county’s 16-bed Psychiatric Health Facility and other facilities for those in such acute distress they required involuntary holds. While there are still fewer involuntary holds now than in 2017, Cottage Hospital’s Emergency Room has experienced a significant spike in such cases in the past year. 

Coordination between Cottage ER workers and their counterparts at Behavioral Wellness over those discharged from emergency room has emerged as a significant problem. Gleghorn assured the supervisors last week that her department was creating a new liaison position so that ER doctors will know exactly who to refer patients to. 

As a department head, Gleghorn was regarded as tough, smart, competent, and stubborn. Supervisors in support of Laura’s Law — a mental-health approach in which judges are enlisted to order service-resistant clients into treatment — had to resort to legislative trickery to overcome Gleghorn’s opposition. 

Supervisor Das Williams praised Gleghorn for stabilizing a department that he described as the bureaucratic equivalent of Afghanistan. Her tenure, Gleghorn said, illustrated that “Everything is possible, even the impossible.” 

Later, when one of the supervisors spoke of Gleghorn working eight years for the county, Gleghorn corrected them. “Six and a half years,” she said “Not that I’m counting.”

Glegorhorn is leaving to become president and CEO of Phoenix Houses of California, Inc., a SoCal-based private nonprofit substance abuse treatment program, and will step down from her Behavioral Wellness post in mid-June. In her stead, Pam Fisher, the department’s second in command, will fill in pending the selection of a permanent replacement. Fisher had announced her own retirement just last month and will stay on to facilitate the transition. 

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