- Leaving was the best thing I ever did. Rita Wiley
Dowes style "dictatorial," ex-staffers sayDuring her three-year tenure, Dr. Tisha Dowe was glowingly profiled in the media for her leadership of a department charged with ensuring the health and safety of a half-million people.
Newspaper profiles of Dowe -- by The Gazette and even in the Denver alternative newsweekly Westword -- gave the recently fired director of the El Paso County Health Department high marks for leadership.
Closer scrutiny of those profiles shows that the primary accolades of Dowe came from Dowe herself.
Several longtime managers and division heads believe Dowe's firing came about two and a half years too late. To them, Dowe's Feb. 22 termination came as no shock at all. Her style of leadership -- described as "dictatorial," "controlling" and "micromanaging" -- resulted in an exodus of health-care professionals who have devoted, in some cases, decades of effort to innovative programs that have earned the Health Department national and even international recognition.
"She was very controlling -- everything had to have Tisha Dowe's signature on it," said Rita Wiley, who developed a widely acclaimed family nurturing and parenting program under the Health Department's umbrella, which was funded entirely from grants and not from county resources.
Wiley said that under Dowe's leadership she became increasingly frustrated and said she found herself feeling controlled, losing perspective, and physically and psychologically depressed. Ultimately, after 13 years with the Health Department, Riley resigned on Aug. 31, 2000 and has since reorganized her program with Pikes Peak Family Connection, a local nonprofit.
After she quit, Wiley said, her blood pressure returned to normal, she could eat and sleep again and she had lost 30 pounds. "Leaving," she said, "was the best thing I ever did."
Krzys Myszkowski was more tacit in his assessment of Dowe's culture of leadership. Myszkowski, who worked as the acting director of the Health Department for nine months until Dowe was hired and then became the department's assistant director, ultimately resigned to take a job heading Catholic Charities, a Colorado Springs nonprofit organization.
"For some people, [Dowe's leadership] fit, but as much as I tried to make it fit, it didn't fit for me," said Myszkowski. "My leadership style is one where I entrust all my personnel to do the jobs they are paid to do, hold them accountable, not look over their shoulders. If that can't be, if I'm not in that kind of environment, I don't work well."
Because of the tight-knit, often interdependent nature of the many local nonprofit organizations that rely on the Health Department for support -- including financial support -- Riley, Myszkowski and others who departed the agency under Dowe's leadership have been loathe to speak out about their frustrations.
"We had to live in the community and not burn any bridges," Wiley pointed out.
When she became director, Dowe's department consisted of about 225 employees, including physicians, nurses, managers and line staff. After she was hired, Dowe reorganized the department, resulting in the hiring of several mid-level managers. The department now employs approximately 250 people.
In a recent interview, Dowe claimed the turnover of longtime staff and managers was due to "an aging work force," and dismissed criticisms about her leadership as coming from a "few disgruntled employees." Her staff, she maintains, generally supported her.
The county's longtime, ever-blunt manager of the department's STD/HIV programs, begs to differ.
"The kind of person [Dowe] is -- she's a control freak -- her administrative style is such that the word dictatorial comes to mind," said John Potterat. Rather than continue working for Dowe, Potterat opted for early retirement last year -- pushed out, he said, after 30 years.
"There was no scandal," he said. "Dr. Dowe was interested in removing people that might take the spotlight away from her and she thought it might be damaging to the Health Department if she was not perceived as being in complete control. I have the reputation of being frank, so in her administrative framework, someone like me served no purpose."
Potterat, as well as Myszkowski and Wiley, worry about the recent chaos on the most dedicated people left standing at the Health Department -- the workers.
"There's been a tremendous amount of upheaval, and it has been tremendously difficult on the line staff, who do the work every day," said Wiley. "For the most part, these are good, dedicated people who never did it for the money but because they care.
"The employees are really good people -- they deserve better."