View Full Version : Article: Sabra Burdick: A proud 'bureaucrat' (DHS - Mental Health)

04-25-2004, 05:54 AM

Sabra Burdick: A proud 'bureaucrat'
Sunday, April 25, 2004

Kennebec Journal Reporter Gary Remal recently sat down with Sabra Burdick, the acting commissioner of the state Department of Behavioral and Developmental Services, to talk about the changes she's seen in three decades of government service in Maine and her plans for retirement.

How have you seen things change within state government over your long tenure?

When I first came into state government there was a lot of civility. I'm particularly interested in the relationship between the Legislature and the executive branch. That changed so there was a lot of rancor and difficulty getting along in the mid-'80s to when I left in the '90s. But my experience in the last couple of sessions is that the civility has returned. So from that perspective I'm really happy to see that's happening again. In terms of the internal workings of the executive branch, I've been really impressed with the way the departments have been working together better. Certainly, our department and DHS are working together better than they ever have before, which is a good portent for the merger (between Human Services and the Department of Behavioral and Developmental Services now being planned).

Do you see (the lack of civility) as budget-related or political?

It was more about the leadership in the Legislature, from my perspective. It was personalities. It probably was a factor of the people who happened to be in the Legislature during that six-, seven-, eight-year period. It's a different tone now, and different people in leadership roles, and I'm particularly talking about the committees of jurisdiction I had to deal with.

What brought you to Maine?

I had decided I wanted to be closer to my family in Connecticut. And actually I applied for several jobs in Vermont, Maine and in Massachusetts. The job in Vermont was working at a special school for handicapped kids. The job in Boston was in the Boston public school system, and the job in Maine was more of an administrative position. And as luck would have it, this was the first offer I received, so I took it.

When you look back on your time as deputy commissioner and especially as acting commissioner, what are you going to be most proud of?

This department had something like 13 commissioners and acting commissioners in the last 10 years. Some of those acting commissioners for two months, some for six, but a lot of leadership change. And I think it has been one of the reasons we've been slow in coming into compliance with the Augusta Mental Health Institue (AMHI) consent decree, and maybe even with the community consent decree. Lynn (Duby, former commissioner) and I were very close. What I'm most proud of, I think, when she left there was hardly a ripple. I have a quote on my computer that I look at every morning: "The art of progress is to produce change while maintaining order, and to maintain order while producing change." And I hope that I've honored that.

You are leaving now and you won't get to see the end of the (AMHI) consent decree whichever way it goes. Are you confident you will be able to convince Judge Nancy Mills in the near future that you're in compliance?

Yes. I also think one of the things we learned from the court case, from her order and beyond that, I think we did get a much clearer picture of what the judge and the plaintiffs were looking for. And I firmly believe the work we're doing now is the direction we need to go in.

As you prepare to leave, what do you see as unfinished that you're most concerned about?

We are so close. During May and June in the community consent decree the commissioner will be signing affidavits certifying that we're in compliance with certain aspects of that decree. I wish I were going to be the person signing those affidavits. I think we've done a lot of work, and I'd like to be the commissioner the day patients move into Riverview (Psychiatric Center, the state's new psychiatric hospital). I also wish I was going to be around for more of the merger discussions.

Do you think the merger is going to be good for this side of the (new) department? Do you think that mental health and substance abuse and mental retardation things are going to be lost in the bigger shuffle?

No, I don't think they're going to be lost. So much depends on the leadership. We heard that all through the merger discussions. Jack (Nicholas, commissioner of the proposed new department) knows that. It's kind of like living in a village here as opposed to living in a city at DHS. The feeling in this department is a little different. I do think it's because we're smaller. We know each other. I probably know by name half, if not more, of the 1,200 employees who work here. It's a little different in a bigger department. But I don't think the issues of the citizens we serve will get lost.

How has it been for you as commissioner to work with a court-appointed receiver?

I have made it a point to be responsive to her and I think she has been to me. We are trying to keep each other well informed about what's going on. And I think because of that, we've avoided, so far, any constitutional crises in decision making. And she is a very good and smart person about her work. And I respect her. And I think she respects both me and the office of commissioner. So, so far, so good.

Tell me a little bit about what you're planning for retirement.

We have a new puppy. I now have three dogs and four cats and a grandchild, Lauren, who is now 17 months old. I want to spend some time relaxing and gardening and playing with all those people and things. I really haven't had much opportunity to do that in the last 10 years. These jobs are very stressful and I really need to rest, and then see what's up in the fall. I don't know what I'll do then. My plan is to take the whole summer off, although I've already been asked to do a few consulting kinds of things. I love government. I love governing. I love the study of leadership. What about state government do you think people should know? I think people underrate state employees and use the term "bureaucrat" in such a disparaging way. I used to think of us all as public servants, and I think that is what we are. And I think "bureaucrat" is a good thing. I think the people who manage and work in government care deeply and, for the most part, come to work every day thinking about doing the best job they can for Maine.