LOCKPORT – Antoinette Lech, Niagara County’s mental health director for the past 20 years, said she is retiring soon.
“It may be in the next month. It may be later if I want to get some more work done,” she said.
Lech, 64, said the timing pertains to the department’s annual detailed financial report to Albany, which is due May 31. At present, the Mental Health Department’s budget clerk is on leave, complicating the reporting process, Lech said.
Lech seemingly hasn’t gotten along with the County Legislature in recent years, but that didn’t impact her employment status because the Legislature didn’t hire her and couldn’t fire her. The same is true for the county manager.
The mental health director is chosen by the Community Services Board, a group with connections to the mental health field, which recruits its own members and submits the names to the Legislature, according to Chairwoman Rose Siegwarth, of Youngstown.
“This is my personal decision, to retire from this position,” said Lech, who joined the county Jan. 31, 1994. She was to have been paid $108,967 this year.
“She has not attended a lot of the Legislature board meetings. She sent someone else,” said Legislator W. Keith McNall, R-Lockport, chairman of the Community Services Committee.
“I feel she’s always run a very good department,” McNall said. “I heard as a department head she ran a tight ship and wanted things her way, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
“We brought the county Department of Mental Health into the modern age,” Lech said. “It was professionalized.”
As county tax funding for mental health dwindled – Lech said it’s been cut 69 percent during her tenure – she was able to come up with grants and other funding sources to keep the programs operating.
“We run on a corporate compliance policy,” Lech said. “We’re audited regularly by the state.” And the outside contract agencies that provide most of the services also are audited regularly, she added.
Siegwarth said: “We did form a search committee. We met once, and we’re drawing up plans as to how to fill the position.”
McNall said: “That does not come before the Legislature. It’s an involved process.”
Siegwarth said that after the Community Services Board chooses the new director, the choice must be ratified in Albany by the Inter-Office Coordinating Committee of the state Office of Mental Health.
Although the Legislature plays no direct role in filling the director’s post, Siegwarth said, “Of course we’re going to keep our County Legislature advised.” Her board is supposed to have 15 members, but at the moment only 10 seats are filled, with two more appointments awaiting Legislature confirmation.
Siegwarth is the retired CEO of Rivershore Inc., a Lewiston mental health agency that affiliated last week with People Inc. She said the main areas of the Mental Health Department’s focus are mental illness, developmental disabilities, and alcoholism and substance abuse.
Lech came from the private sector, and Siegwarth said state regulations required the county to employ a clinical supervisor, since the director lacked a clinical background.
The stated qualifications for the job include advanced degrees in medicine, psychology, social work or other related fields, along with at least five years of experience.