Supervisor Catherine Stefani wants to restructure the Behavioral Health Commission. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Mismanagement allegations could lead to restructuring of behavioral health board

After resigning from the Behavioral Health Commission over mismanagement allegations, Supervisor Catherine Stefani has introduced legislation to sever ties with the nonprofit overseeing the body.

In an unusual arrangement, the Department of Public Health contracts with a nonprofit to provide the staffing and support for the commission, formerly known as the Mental Health Board.

But Stefani said the setup with the San Francisco Mental Health Education Funds lacks public transparency and should end after allegations the group inappropriately applied for a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan to pay for staff salaries and improperly invoiced expenses, as previously reported by the San Francisco Examiner.

Stefani said her proposal would “reform the structure of the Behavioral Health Commission to eliminate any corrupt or inappropriate behavior in its administration.”

The nonprofit’s long-time executive director, Helynna Brooke, announced her retirement from the post in May amid the allegations, and her last day was in early July.

“I wanted to retire. I am 71,” Brooke told the San Francisco Examiner Monday.

Brooke maintains she did nothing wrong, other than fall behind in invoicing for several months due to a bout of depression, and didn’t see anything inappropriate with applying for the PPP loan to make sure she and her staff did not go without pay. She estimated the loan at about $25,000. The nonprofit’s board approved of applying for the loan.

Stefani had served on the commission since 2019, but resigned in May “after becoming aware of serious allegations of financial impropriety and contract mismanagement,” she told her colleagues last week.

“The allegations include applying for and accepting the federal paycheck protection program loan when there was no loss of income or loss of employment for any of the staff serving the commission,” she said.

Under Stefani’s proposal, the “department shall provide administrative staff to the Behavioral Health Commission with department employees.” The legislation also sets new staggered terms for the 17 members.

The now-retired executive director for 21 years took issue with Stefani’s proposal, arguing it could compromise the oversight body’s independence and leave it understaffed.

“The commission really is able to uncover things and then go to the department and say something needs to be done about this and I am concerned how will they be able to really be separate and really do their job?” Brooke said.

She wondered to what extent the department would choose to staff it, whether it would have full-time staff or if only a portion of an employee’s time would be dedicated to it.

Mental Health Boards were established in counties throughout California under state law to provide oversight and advice on mental health services.

Other counties have their respective health departments provide the staff, but Brooke said San Francisco’s setup allows them to “do so much more advocacy than other boards and commissions around the state.”

“I think it is working,” she said.

Stefani had reported her concerns to the Department of Public Health and City Controller’s Office at the time of her resignation. The department previously confirmed to the Examiner an investigation was ongoing but did not provide an update Monday on its status by press time.

“I don’t believe I misused anything,” Brooke said. “Was I good at the accounting and invoices this past year? I wasn’t. That’s different than misusing.”

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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