In a move orchestrated by new County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, the Allegheny County Board of Health Wednesday voted to terminate the contract of Bruce Dixon, the Health Department's director for the past 20 years.
After hearing impassioned pleas to save Dr. Dixon's job from a dozen supporters -- including forensic pathologist and former county medical examiner Cyril H. Wecht -- the board held a 90-minute, closed-door executive session and returned to vote 6-0 with one abstention to fire the 73-year-old doctor, who is an acknowledged expert on a wide variety of public health issues.
Prior to the vote and after it, there was no public discussion by the board of the issues it considered in reaching its decision.
When the meeting ended, Lee Harrison, the health board chairman, said "Dr. Dixon has been a phenomenal public servant for the county for 20 years" and also that the board "felt the move was in the best interests of the county."
Asked to explain why the board terminated its longtime director, Dr. Harrison said it was a "personnel decision" and board members had "looked at the issue seriously." He added that Mr. Fitzgerald had "made no bones about the fact of what he wants to see happen."
Following the health board meeting, Mr. Fitzgerald's office issued a statement saying the county executive appreciated Dr. Dixon's years of service and dedication. Reports earlier this week said the county executive wasn't happy with how Dr. Dixon handled the recent restaurant-grading controversy, diesel idling regulation and delays in air pollution permitting, among other issues.
"It is now time to take the department in a new direction," Mr. Fitzgerald said in the statement, "and to ensure that our public health, air quality, food safety and other critical services are among the best in the nation."
Dr. Dixon did not attend the health board meeting, and following it he did not return calls requesting comment. In a phone conversation two hours before the meeting, he said he would leave it to the board to decide, and "just play it by ear" and "see how things play out."
Earlier this week Dr. Dixon said Mr. Fitzgerald had met with him Friday and told him he could either resign or be fired. After reports of that meeting surfaced earlier this week, a diverse group of a dozen people signed up to speak on Dr. Dixon's behalf at the health board meeting. County Health Department personnel also attended, filling the meeting room and spilling into the adjacent hallway.
Dr. Wecht urged the health board to delay its vote to allow for a full review of the Health Department director's record, and he said it was wrong "to simply act at the political behest of someone who appointed you."
He praised Dr. Dixon's "expertise, ability and singular dedication to the county" as irreplaceable.
Richard Fogoros, who has known Dr. Dixon since 1975, said his communication skills, diagnostic abilities and expertise in the area of infectious diseases.
"He's like Dr. House," Dr. Fogoros said, referring to the physician in the popular television series "House." "Except for two things: He's not a fictional character, and he cares passionately about his patients."
David Duschac, president of the Association of Master Plumbers of Allegheny County, said Dr. Dixon is skilled in understanding and representing the industry on a variety of public health issues.
"I wouldn't think that anyone who could replace him would be better," he said.
And Amir Clemons, a minority disease intervention specialist at the Health Department's sexually transmitted disease clinic, said Dr. Dixon is a "blessing to the community" who never failed to offer his help and strong support to the clinic and those who need it.
The board decision to terminate Dr. Dixon's contract, which runs through June 2013, is effective in 90 days, a termination notice requirement that is part of the contract. Under that contract, the county pays $175,000 a year to the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, where Dr. Dixon is a tenured member of the faculty.
Dr. Harrison said the three months will be used by the health board to work with Dr. Dixon on a smooth transition and on finding his replacement. Dr. Harrison promised a "wide search" and said an interim director will probably be appointed.
Don Hopey: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1983.