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Editorial: Next leader needs fresh approach at state hospital

In 2009, Eastern State Hospital was the target of community outrage when a paranoid schizophrenic killer walked away from a group taking a field trip to the Spokane County Interstate Fair. Philip Paul was captured after a statewide manhunt, and shortly thereafter the hospital’s chief executive officer, Harold Wilson, resigned.

In his resignation letter, Wilson wrote, “Hopefully, this move will help to signify that a change in leadership at the Hospital is being taken and that new vision and direction can be brought forth to lead the Hospital.”

Last week, his replacement, Connie Wilmot, accepted a lesser position within the Department of Social and Health Services in the wake of the November strangulation of one mental patient by another. Amber I. Roberts has been charged with murder in the death of Duane Charley in the hospital’s ward for the criminally insane.

According to court documents, the victim’s roommate said Roberts removed her belt and used it to strangle Charley. Why she possessed a belt was one of many questions that arose from the killing. Roberts was sent to the state hospital after allegedly choking a Yakima woman in 2003.

Wilmot had been on a planned leave before stepping down. DSHS isn’t commenting on the reasons for her voluntary demotion, but the hospital lost its accreditation in December after a survey discovered that patients had access to items such as electrical cords that could be used to strangle.

The hospital regained its accreditation in January, but it apparently still needs the “new vision and direction” Wilson cited three and a half years ago. New DSHS Director Kevin Quigley told the editorial board in January that some hospital workers did not have confidence in their leadership and that “the wheels were off” at the state hospitals.

Too often that seems to be the case at DSHS agencies, as directors come and go after short stints marred by controversies. In the past two years, the Seattle Times reported, DSHS has paid more than $55 million in lawsuit settlements and judgments.

Quigley was an unusual choice, coming from the business community. But perhaps a fresh perspective from an outsider is what DSHS has needed all along. Sen. Pam Roach, a longtime agency critic, noted that this creative appointment by Gov. Jay Inslee was encouraging, because Quigley wouldn’t be expected to “protect the Citadel.” Quigley has been the president of an Internet venture and a shipbuilding company.

DSHS says a national search will be conducted for a new leader of Eastern State Hospital. That hire will be critical because, as Quigley notes, “You can’t manage those organizations from Olympia.”

We have no doubt that managing a state hospital is a tough job, but judging from the reviews that were conducted after past controversies, it looks as if a fresh perspective is sorely needed.

Inslee broke the mold in hiring Quigley, and Quigley might need to do the same by hiring someone outside the government culture.

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