Records: Ex-NHC health director failed to take Covid-19 seriously, among many other failures
According to documents released to WHQR by New Hanover County, former Public Health Director Phillip Tarte was fired late last month -- after a year and a half of failures his supervisors at various times called “colossal,” “egregious,” and “reprehensible.” Those failures included his unwillingness or inability to take the Covid-19 pandemic seriously, forcing other top officials to “work around” him, and at times hampering or endangering those efforts.
The documents were initially protected after Tarte’s dismissal on January 27, but became public record once his deadline to appeal the county’s decision elapsed. They include disciplinary letters from County Manager Chris Coudriet, former Assistant County Manager Kathy Stoute, and Health and Human Services Director Donna Fayko (you can find copies at the end of this article). Prior to the release of the documents, Port City Daily reported on their contents, including some aspects that had been redacted from the public record.
Nearly fired over a year ago
In the earliest letter, dated November 14, 2019, former Assistant County Manager Stoute (who has since retired) referenced a pre-dismissal hearing, noting that while Tarte had “failed to meet leadership expectations” he was being given “a final opportunity” to prove he could do the job. The letter details Tarte’s failings, including poor communication with both his staff and his superiors, failure to address a backlog of environmental health inspections which was then made public, and missing at least one important meeting without explanation or apology. Stoute also notes a “colossal failure” to properly manage the hiring of a health educator, which could have resulted in the hiring of a candidate for an unfunded position.
Stoute further notes that, while Tarte was suspended with pay pending the outcome of his pre-dismissal hearing, she was acquired access to his email and confirmed 13,249 unread emails. Stoute wrote to Tarte that this was “a prime example of your lack of responsiveness and failure in communication.”
According to Stoute’s letter, Tarte alleged that an earlier performance review had created a ‘hostile work environment,’ but never filed a formal complaint and was eventually told by the count’s chief human resources officer that the performance review didn’t constitute harassment; according to Stoute, Tarte agreed to this.
Tarte also agreed to a regiment of oversight and benchmarks to increase his performance.
Second chance, but more failures
Less than six months later, Stoute wrote Tarte again, this time on March 5, 2020, to inform him of a second pre-dismissal hearing. Stoute wrote that Tarte continued to fall short of expectations. There was also a new, even more pressing concern: the emerging Covid-19 pandemic.
The previous month, County Manager Coudriet had reached out to Tarte to asking what the health department was doing to prepare for the pandemic. According to Stoute, Tarte didn’t promptly reply, and when Coudriet asked again 24 hours later, Tarte sent only a “short two-sentence reply that left a lot of unanswered questions.”
According to Stoute, the Coudriet “had to assemble a team” including the emergency management director, communications and outreach staff, and others.
“We had to work around you and replace you during a public health crisis, as a result of your lack of initiative or concern,” Stoute wrote. Elsewhere in the letter, she added, “I consider your lack of responsiveness and lack of attention to such an important matter as reprehensible.”
Despite his failures to address the pandemic, Tarte was not fired. Coudriet cancelled the pre-dismissal meeting. He would later write, “we simply could not lose our public health focus by shifting attention to performance deficiencies of the public health director while in the midst of a pandemic.”
One more chance
While Coudriet had thrown Tarte one more lifeline, at the cost of a salary reduction, he also noted additional concerns.
These included the rollout of the county’s new smoking and vaping policy, key aspects of which Tarte botched, according to letters from Coudriet and, later, Fayko. This included an incident in which Tarte failed to inform the entire Health and Human Services Board that the City of Wilmington’s attorney wanted to weigh in on the issue. According to Coudriet, this set off a chain reaction when the Board chair declined to allow the attorney to speak unilaterally; the attorney’s concerns were then “made known” to City Council and county commissioners, “affecting our integrity and relationship with the City of Wilmington and the credibility of New Hanover County.”
Coudriet also noted that Tarte had received a dismal evaluation score --- 1.6 out of 5, or 32% --- which the count manager called “unacceptable, not only for a leader, but for any employee in this organization.”
Tarte was told that his salary reduction, returning him roughly to his 2016 hiring salary of $130,000, was the “last option available to the county that does not include demotion or separation.”
In October 2020, Tarte got a new boss -- Donna Fayko. From the first day as his supervisor, Fayko said she “had to consistently address performance/leadership concerns” about Tarte.
Some of those concerns included unexplained absences during the day, arriving late or missing meetings, and an inability to manage the vaccine process -- a failure so severe that, according to Fayko, “a team had to be assembled to exclude” Tarte. According to Fayko, Tarte then went outside that team to discuss the rollout with Wilmington Health, which “created a silo… and had the potential to negatively impact our vaccine response operations.”
In early January, as the rollout began, Fayko wrote that Tarte “showed no sense of urgency or leadership” for the vaccine administration process. Tarte was cavalier when asked a direct question during a leadership meeting the following week, behavior Fayko called “an embarrassment.”
Fayko made a point of noting that Tarte had told her he was “the best health director in the State of North Carolina” and would later ask for another opportunity to improve his performance.
On January 27, Tarte was fired, effective that day.
This week, Fayko issued a brief statement:
It is unfortunate that we had to part ways with Mr. Tarte and I wish him the best in his future endeavors. Our Public Health team will continue to lead our community toward better health and wellness. They are dedicated to the community and our health initiatives, and since February of 2020 have done incredible work in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I am eager to move forward, with a continued focus of serving every single person in our community.
Tarte declined an in-person request for an interview and has not responded to a subsequent phone-call follow-ups.