Kathryn Vedder, the newly named Salt Lake City/County Health Department executive director, says reading news reports about her job performance in a previous job was like being "run through a buzzsaw."
The (St. Louis) Post-Dispatch ran a number of stories during Vedder's two-year tenure as director of the city's Department of Health and Hospitals, criticizing her management of ambulance services and programs to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and tuberculosis.Saying her management skills were "inept," The Post-Dispatch stories also said she failed to improve maternal and child health-care problems, including immunization rates.
Those accusations have resurfaced since Vedder's recent selection as new executive director in Salt Lake's health department, ef
fective in September.
But Vedder and Salt Lake officials, as well as some colleagues in St. Louis, say the accusations are both malicious and unfair.
"My recollection of those articles is that a lot of them were not entirely - fair," said Richard Kurz, dean of St. Louis University's School of Public Health, in a telephone interview. "Kate, in all fairness, inherited in the last 20 years a number of problems.
"The department is extremely political in terms of what the past mayors have pressed on people to do. They have, in the past, not hired people based on their backgrounds in public health. With Kate, of course, that was not the case. So, to say that it was her fault is not entirely fair."
Freeman Bosley Jr., who was mayor of St. Louis when Vedder took office, said the criticisms of Vedder's job performance were launched - not coincidentally - right around Bosley's re-election campaign.
"About the immunizations, and the infant care, and other issues. They were issues before I got into office, but nobody raised them before (re-election time).
"Kathryn Vedder was the product of a national search. The committee worked for almost a year to find a person of her caliber. If she was so bad and problematic, she never would have made the short list. But it wasn't until I ran for re-election that these issues came up."
There were problems, though.
"I can't say that spectacular progress forward was made under her administration," said Rich Patton, director of Vision for Children at Risk, and Project Respond, both community advocacy groups in St. Louis.
"It was hard to work collaboratively" on issues involving the community, a problem "viewed as particularly problematic during her administration," he said.
Vedder admits she had trouble making needed changes, but said the "highly charged political atmosphere," and the relatively short period of time she was in office were pivotal factors.
Not only was she new to the area, and to the unique political environment in St. Louis, she was up against a system in disarray.
Vedder said she found herself working within an administration that had not had a permanent leader in 10 years, that was peppered with "patronage employees, many of whom were actively working behind the scenes to undermine what I was trying to do, either because they didn't want change or because they felt personally threatened."
She also cited examples of the chaotic environment swirling around issues of public health. For example, in the ambulance service, for which she has been heavily criticized, Vedder found problems of drug abuse, sexual and racial discrimination, bad morale and faulty equipment.
"These problems didn't develop during my time there. They were already there," she said.
She said she actively worked to improve the situation and was able to make some needed changes. Not all, she said, but some.
She ran into similar snags with a number of different issues. The immunization rates were among the lowest in the country when she took office, and sexually transmitted disease rates were among the highest.
When Vedder came to Salt Lake City to interview for the executive director position, she brought an inch-thick folder of news clippings, which she presented to members of the selection committee.
"I believe in being honest and forthright," Vedder said. "I didn't want the committee to be blind-sided" or surprised when news of the St. Louis accusations surfaced.
Committee members and health officials say they appreciated her candor.
"These allegations are not new. She told us in the beginning that we would hear about it, and we recognized she was in a highly political position," said County Commissioner Mary Callaghan.
Committee members were invited to read through the clippings and judge for themselves who the best candidate for the job would be. They chose Vedder.
"She was making tough management decisions and changing long-running status quo," Callaghan said. "I think that's why she was chosen, because she was going to be receptive to change."
Sam Granato, chairman of the board of health, said Vedder's qualifications spoke far more loudly than media articles and editorials.
Prior to her job in St. Louis, Vedder had worked as the branch chief for the U.S. Public Health Service in Maternal and Child Health/Family Planning Services for five years.
During the three years before that, she served as the maternal and child health physician for the Illinois Department of Health. Her experience also includes serving as director of Ambulatory Services for the Michael Reese Hospital and Medical Center, and senior physician and chairman of Pediatric Protection Services at Cook County Hospital. Both facilities are in Chicago.
Vedder said there were no similar accusations made against her at any of her former jobs.
"I thought she (Vedder) was dynamic and aggressive, and showed, as we perceived it, a deep understanding of all the things that we wanted to accomplish here for the county," Granato said.
Granato said the real measure of Vedder's performance should be her performance in Utah.
"She was vindicated, and I don't think we need to dwell on the past. We need to look forward to accomplishing new things."