Nashville’s public health director, Dr Michael Caldwell has quit after criticism of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and a report that corroborated allegations of sexism

The man in charge of leading the city of Nashville through the coronavirus pandemic has resigned from his job after allegations he discriminated against women at his agency.

Health Director Dr. Michael Caldwell resigned on Thursday although he will still be paid until the end of the year and serve in a ‘remote advisory role.’ 

Caldwell was given little choice as to his future at the Health Department after the Board of Health discussed a pending motion to fire him following an in depth report by the HR deparment into the health agency.

Chairman of the board Alex Jahangir gave Caldwell an ultimatum to either resign on the spot or face a motion to terminate him. 

Nashville’s mayor, John Cooper, released a statement to stressing how there was little concern the Health Department would be without leadership following Caldwell’s departure.

‘Mayor Cooper supports Dr. Caldwell’s decision to resign, following a comprehensive investigation by Human Resources. Our office will work with Metro Public Health leadership to ensure continuity and a smooth transition,’ Mayor spokeswoman Andrew Fanta said. 

Caldwell was already under pressure from Health Board members his poor attendance record and lack of communication about the coronavirus. Pictured, Metro Nashville Health Department and Lentz Clinic

An HR investigation released earlier this week found he’d behaved in a sexist way and harassed employees of the department

Before Thursday’s board meeting, 21 Nashville council members signed a letter urging the board to removal Caldwell, insisting he was not fit to lead.

The trouble began after the city conducted an investigation into the alleged discrimination including an attempt to fire a pregnant Metro Health official, Rachel Franklin, while questioning her ’emotional stability’ according to The Tennessean.    

One of the more concerning incidents in the report occurred when Caldwell had a blunt discussion with Franklin during a phone call last May.   

The Metro Public Health Department was caught completely off guard after the state announced free cloth masks would be dispensed through county health agencies. 

Metro Health had not prepared to distribute the masks, but the announcement saw led to a crowd gathering at the agency.  

Franklin, a Metro Health bureau director, called Caldwell for help. 

He told her that he was at the city’s Office of Emergency Management and would not be coming to Metro Health to deal with the crowd. 

Franklin became frustrated and told Caldwell ‘we need you here!’ the report from city human resources states.

The following day, Caldwell told the agency human resources director, Les Bowron, he wanted Franklin fired ‘by the end of the day.’ 

‘You know she is pregnant, and I wonder if that isn’t impacting her emotional stability,’ Caldwell said, according to the report. 

Bowron replied, ‘Michael, I’m not your attorney, but if I were you, I would never utter those words again because that’s a violation of federal law.’ 

According to the report, Caldwell told human resources staff he was ‘offended’ during his May phone call with Franklin. He denied making remarks about her pregnancy but said he did not disagree that it may have made her emotional. 

A human resources investigation was triggered after Franklins complaint and that of another prominent employee, epidemiologist Leslie Waller who complained about Caldwell’s behavior.

‘It’s like a joke now, about how sexist he is,’ Waller told investigators, according to the report. 

Other reports ‘mostly corroborated and substantiated’ allegations of sexism, gendered workplace harassment and pregnancy discrimination according to The Tennesseean.

One allegation in the report suggested Caldwell got into a disagreement with a female employee and decided he wanted her fired

The complaints alleged Caldwell to be often dismissive of female employees, of which the agency makes up 80%.

After having conflicts with several women he attempted to reorganize the agency and those he had clashed with, demoted.

Several employees, including at least two men who were not demoted. 

The investigation also heard from other workers who believed the reorganization was ‘punitive’. 

One high-level employee, Laura Varnier, who was responsible for Metro Health’s clinical operations, lost authority over a sexual health clinic that she had ‘built up’ over the past year.

‘My opinion is that these changes were punitive,’ Varnier told investigators, according to the report. ‘I can’t see it any other way.’

Before agreeing to resign, Caldwell apologized saying he accepted ‘full responsibility for my actions.’ 

He also stated that any bias against women was ‘unconscious’ and the findings of his report were a ‘wake-up call’ that have ‘shaken (him) to (his) core fundamentally and changed (his) point of view.’ 

‘I am extraordinarily sorry for the distress I have caused to those involved to the department and to the community. I’m sorry that we have to spend some time here today, having to focus on me and my behavior rather than on helping our city managed through this horrific pandemic,’ he said.     

Caldwell has been hired to lead the Metro Public Health Department just before the coronavirus outbreak took hold in early March but he is alleged to have found conflict with workers at the agency with some accusing him of being distant and frequently absent.

Dr. Alex Jahangir who leads Nashville’s board of health said he believed Caldwell had to go in order to regain the trust of employees. 

Vice Chair Tene Hamilton said she did not believe Caldwell had the confidence of his employees or the ‘competencies’ to lead the agency.

‘I don’t think unconscious bias training or coaching is enough for our work force or for the residents of Davidson County,’ Hamilton said.      

The city of Nashville will now be steered by its own coronavirus task force, led by Dr. Alex Jahangir, a surgeon

Caldwell’s resignation means there currently no leader of the health agency at what is arguably the most important agency in Nashville amid the fight against the coronavirus. At the start of the pandemic Caldwell would speak frequently in public about the virus but more recently he has taken a back seat.

The city of Nashville will now be steered by its own coronavirus task force, led by Jahangir, a surgeon.

Asked is Caldwell’s removal would hamper the city’s efforts to combat the virus, Jahangir said: ‘I don’t think anybody could say ‘no’ with certainty, but I think we have a pretty good base of people (to manage the virus),’ Jahangir said.   

Caldwell’s position will be filled by two other officials, Dr. Gill Wright III, the agency’s associate medical director who will serve as the interim chief medical director for health, and Tina Lester, director of the agency’s population health bureau who will be interim chief administrative director.

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