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County panel delays decision on recommending Dankert-Maurer for mental health post

A committee of the Erie County Legislature delayed making a recommendation Thursday on whether to confirm the outgoing social services commissioner in a new role as head of the county’s Department of Mental Health.

Carol Dankert-Maurer had, during her five-year term as social services commissioner, come under fire over the deaths of three children whose families were being investigated by the department’s Child Protective Services division.

On Thursday, Dankert-Maurer appeared before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, where lawmakers grilled her about her qualifications for the mental health post.

Committee Chairwoman Lynne M. Dixon, Ind.-Hamburg, noted that Dankert-Maurer’s résumé was bereft of any specific references to expertise she might have in the field of mental hygiene. Dankert-Maurer said her more than 30 years in the field of social work made her qualified.

“Over the last 30 years, I’ve worked with mental health in a lot of different ways,” Dankert-Maurer said

“As you can imagine, most of the folks that we deal with (in social services) are in multiple systems. So, many of our recipients are, in fact, also involved with the mental health system,” she added.

Late last summer, Dankert-Maurer informed County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz that she would not seek reappointment as social services commissioner once her term expired in December. Poloncarz then proposed her as mental health commissioner, which requires confirmation by the Legislature. Meanwhile, until Poloncarz finds a replacement to head social services, Dankert-Maurer, will run both departments simultaneously, a prospect that Legislature Majority Leader Joseph C. Lorigo, Con.-West Seneca, said was confounding.

“If you needed help handling social services on your own, how on earth are we to believe that you can handle both at the same time?” Lorigo asked.

Dankert-Maurer conceded that running both departments is not ideal, but also insisted it is not a problem in the short term. “I currently have a very capable staff in mental hygiene,” she said.

Marcy Rose, president of the National Alliance for Mental Health in Buffalo and Erie County, was invited by members of the Legislature’s Republican-aligned majority caucus to state her concerns over Dankert-Maurer’s appointment.

“I know almost nothing of Carol Dankert-Maurer, but I do know the legacy she leaves as Erie County social services commissioner. It may not have been totally her fault, but in five years she did not fix the problem. I see no reason why we should welcome her as commissioner of mental health. I’m asking you to look elsewhere for a mental health commissioner,” Rose told lawmakers.

Dankert-Maurer, meanwhile, insisted there was a great deal of overlap between the two departments, including shared contractors, clients and relationships with the same state agencies.

The Legislature is scheduled to vote on whether to confirm Dankert-Maurer during its regular session at 2 p.m. Thursday in the Legislature Chambers at Old Erie County Hall, 92 Franklin St.