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Poloncarz announces nominee for social services commissioner

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz introduced Al Dirschberger as his nominee for county social services commissioner during a news conference Wednesday.

Dirschberger, 51, currently serves as executive director at Journey’s End Refugee Services, a position to which he was appointed in January. He has a doctorate in social work from the University at Buffalo and previously worked for many years at Gateway-Longview, where he was involved in various areas of social services.

“Professor Dirschberger is also a fully tenured professor, teaching adjunct courses at Daemen College, as well as courses at Erie Community College,” Poloncarz said of his choice to head the Department of Social Services. “We did a long search. This was not something that was done overnight,” Poloncarz said. “I think most people understand that the search for a social services commissioner was something that took some time, but I wanted to be sure we had the right person for the job.”

The nomination of a successor to Carol M. Dankert-Maurer, who will be leaving county government Friday, must be approved by a majority of the County Legislature. Poloncarz said he would apprise the Legislature shortly of the Dirschberger nomination.

“In the end, I believe that they will find (Dirschberger’s) qualifications and skills are perfectly suited to be the next social services commissioner, and I, of course, ask for them to approve that nomination as soon as possible so that he can, once again, be officially the commissioner and get down to the work that’s needed on a daily basis on behalf of the people of Erie County,” Poloncarz said.

Dirschberger will assume the position’s duties on an interim basis effective at 5 p.m. Friday, and his first full day in the office will be Monday.

Lawmakers in the Legislature’s Republican-aligned majority caucus learned of the nomination through social media and offered a prepared response. “As with any appointment, the Legislature has a process,” said Legislator Lynne M. Dixon, I-Hamburg, chairwoman of the Legislature’s Health & Human Services Committee, which will conduct Dirschberger’s interview before a vote on his nomination is taken by the full Legislature. “Because of the past issues surrounding this department and the important services it provides, we must be thorough in appointing someone,” Dixon said.

Legislature Majority Leader Joseph C. Lorigo, C-West Seneca, said he and Dixon had been calling on the county executive to hire a new commissioner for almost a year. “I am hopeful that the Legislature receives information on the county executive’s recommendation as soon as possible,” Lorigo said. “This will allow us to begin the process of reviewing his qualifications in order to get a commissioner in place, sooner rather than later.”

Dankert-Maurer’s five-year term as social services commissioner originally expired Dec. 15, but she has remained on the job in a holdover capacity while simultaneously running the Department of Mental Health. In early January, Poloncarz nominated Dankert-Maurer to succeed Ellery Reaves in the latter post, but withdrew the nomination later in the month after Republican-aligned legislators expressed concerns about Dankert-Maurer’s record as commissioner. She had come under withering criticism over the deaths of three children whose families had been investigated by Child Protective Services. The county restructured the department and eventually hired 37 extra CPS workers and 12 part-time investigators.

Dankert-Maurer, who was an appointee of then-County Executive Chris Collins, had expressed to Poloncarz that she had not been planning to return to her post as social services commissioner once her five-year term expired. However, she agreed to continue heading the largest department in county government until a replacement was found.

“The Department of Social Services is the largest department in Erie County government. It requires someone whose skill level is commensurate with the job. I know we have that individual in Professor Dirschberger,” Poloncarz said.

“He’s coming in with many years of experience in the social services field. He’s the right person to lead us forward.”

Dirschberger said his first order of business, he said, will be to do an assessment of the department. “Right now,” he said, “it’s a little too early for me to say what changes are needed.”

email: hmcneil@buffnews.com