Politics

Longtime chief of state-run mental health organization quits over split with board

The longtime chief of Alaska's state-run mental health trust resigned Wednesday, citing a split with a board of trustees that wants to restructure the organization to respond to the state's massive budget crisis.

Jeff Jessee, who as a disability rights attorney played a key role in the Alaska Mental Health Trust's re-establishment in 1994, submitted his resignation Wednesday. He led the trust for 21 years since it was re-started under the terms of a legal settlement.

"The trust and the beneficiaries will face many unprecedented challenges as Alaska deals with our fiscal and economic difficulties," Jessee wrote in his resignation letter. "It is clear that a majority of the board of trustees believes that significant changes in the trust's organization and efforts must be made to meet these challenges. These changes will require new perspectives and ideas to ensure that the trust can meet the needs of the beneficiaries well into the future."

[Read Jeff Jessee's resignation letter.]

At a special board meeting Wednesday, Jessee, whose salary is $191,000, agreed to step down and accept a new job as a program officer at the trust.

While the trust looks for a permanent replacement, Jessee's old job will be filled by Greg Jones, though Jessee's resignation won't be effective until Jones' temporary hiring is approved by the office of Gov. Bill Walker.

While Jessee came from a mental health background, Jones is a former director of the trust's land office. That's the arm of the trust charged with generating cash from its million-acre land portfolio — an area the board, which is appointed by the governor, suggested will get a higher priority.

One of the trust's board members, Larry Norene, referred questions to board chair Russ Webb.

Jessee, in a joint phone interview with Webb late Wednesday, said he didn't have the "balance of skills" board members want — which is why it made sense for him to shift to a different job focused on mental health programs.

"We want to balance Jeff's advocacy with a focus on generating income and managing our assets," Webb said.

The ideal replacement for Jessee, Webb said, will have business and natural resources experience, as well as a history with mental health issues.

Webb also said the trust is planning an organizational review to see if it can make changes to its programs and land offices to help them work together more effectively.

Some of the trust's recent efforts to raise money have run into criticism.

The board next month is reconsidering proposed timber sales near the Southeast communities of Ketchikan and Petersburg after those plans generated sharp local opposition.

And two of the top state officials who were involved in the trust's creation, former attorney general Bruce Botelho and former natural resources commissioner Harry Noah, last week sent a letter to lawmakers asking them to audit the trust's investments and development plans.

Webb said the letter from Noah and Botelho had nothing to do with the board's decision to look for a new executive.

He said the board hopes to have a permanent replacement for Jessee within six months.

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