The Nashville Board of Health convenes Friday for a pre-planned retreat that will now focus on how to steer Nashville’s Public Health Department into the future after the reluctant resignation of city’s public health chief on Thursday.
Nine months into an often-rocky tenure as the head of the Nashville Public Health Department, Dr. Michael Caldwell resigned from his post Thursday evening — just minutes ahead of a vote by the Board of Health to fire him.
Dr. Caldwell’s resignation came hours after 21 members of the Metro Council asked for his firing and a day after a Metro Human Resources investigation found allegations of workplace sexism against him “mostly corroborated and substantiated.”
Two women brought specific complaints — among them that Dr. Caldwell questioned the “emotional stability” of a pregnant employee who challenged his absence from the department then sought to fire her. A second complaint centered on Dr. Caldwell’s plans to reorganize the department, resulting in the demotion of women in leadership positions.
But the HR report also laid bare a pattern of behavior witnessed and experienced by a wider group of employees, including combative behavior and “frequent and clear disdain for women on weekly calls and in meetings.”
The HR report was the latest controversy to trail Dr. Caldwell in his short tenure as Nashville’s top public health official — a job he began in March in the week before Nashville announced its first COVID-19 case and that formally ends this week as COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths reach new highs.
Nashville’s public health infrastructure includes a COVID-19 Task Force appointed by Nashville Mayor John Cooper and long-time Department of Health officials who guide the city’s day-to-day response to the crisis. Dr. Caldwell’s departure, board of health officials said Thursday, would leave that response in able hands.
Caldwell came under fire in May for agreeing to share names and addresses of COVID-19 patients with Nashville Police — a move that angered members of the board, who said they had been “blindsided” — as well as council members, community groups and many Nashville residents.
He was criticized for being combative in briefings with council members and failing to provide the data they sought. He was initially at odds with other Metro leaders and health officials in a policy to require masks.
And, on occasion, he responded to criticisms with statements that backfired.
“I’m amazed at the job I am doing,” Dr. Caldwell told board members who criticized his absences for “long stretches” from the department. Caldwell said he was out in the community introducing himself to residents and leaders, while department officials and employees claimed he was absent from his duties overseeing the department.
Dr. Caldwell ended his tenure reluctantly, first offering to take training in implicit bias and professional counseling, before continuing in his role. He apologized from the outset, saying he was “extraordinarily sorry for the distress and hurt I have caused those involved, to the department and to the community.”
“I am thankful this has been brought to light,” he said. “I accept full responsibility for my actions. I am willing to learn and want to repair the damage done and move forward.”
But at Thursday night’s Board of Health meeting, conducted via video conference, Dr. Caldwell also appeared to discount the substance of the allegations brought by the two women, saying that they likely were “triggered” by his proposal to reorganize the department.
“So are you saying this is retaliatory towards you?” Dr. Alex Jahangir, chair of the board, asked Dr. Caldwell.
“I didn’t say that,” Dr. Caldwell said. “I am just noting the timing. That’s all.”
Several board members made clear Thursday night they believed the damage inflicted by Dr. Caldwell was irreparable.
“The lack of trust that’s occurred…I don’t know if however much remediation that’s going to build it again,” said Carol Etherington, one of six members of the Board of Health, which responsible for overseeing the health department and its director.
The vast majority of the health department’s 700 employees are women.
Tene Franklin, the board’s vice chair, asked Dr. Caldwell to respond directly to their concerns.
“Why should 80 percent of the workforce who can possibly identify with your admitted actions, and the impact, why should they trust you?” Franklin asked.
In response, Dr. Caldwell said that he had gotten to know half of the department’s employees 700 through one-on-one interactions. They trust him, he said.
“They have a chance to talk to you as they had me,” Caldwell said. “I think you will hear they value me and trust me.”
Franklin greeted his statement with disbelief. She has spoken to many of the rank and file employees, she told Dr. Caldwell. What they told Franklin does not square with Dr. Caldwell’s assertion he is trusted and valued by women at the Nashville Public Health Department.
“I think he might have a different understanding than a good amount of the workforce,” Franklin said.
Dr. Jahangir said he was unconvinced that the remedial action Dr. Caldwell pledged to seek — such as classes, training and coaching — would be effective.
“I’m worried that without a clean slate we cannot regain the trust of the women of this department — and the men,” he said.
As the meeting reached the two-hour mark, Dr. Jahangir made clear he would move toward a vote to terminate Dr. Caldwell’s contract if he did not agree to resign immediately, not — as Dr. Caldwell suggested — spend weeks or months in a transition phase with the department before he left.
Dr. Caldwell quickly agreed to resign before that vote could take place. He must clear out his office by the end of the day Friday, and will no longer have access to the health department’s email or computer servers.