Maryland, where controversial health officers are something of a tradition, Dr. Donald K. Wallace is merely one more outspoken deputy. But in Prince George's County, where "order in the ranks" is the rule among department heads, Wallace is a maverick in the ranks.
While other Prince George's department heads seem content to propose policies in private and let the county executive make the final decisions, not so Wallace, who is the county health officer and deputy state medical officer. He is extremely candid, not only with the county executive, but with the reporters, staff assistants or council members and shows little concern about the possible effects on his job security.
"I think it's important to do a good job and not let job security interfere with that, not be intimidated by the whole process," said Wallace. "If an [WORD ILLEGIBLE] comes up you have to go out and [WORD ILLEGIBLE] hit it square on and let things fall where they will."
As a result, Wallace has become a perpetual thorn in the side of County Executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr. His opinions on the location of county hospitals, on the mental health budget, on the need for more stringent payment schedules for health services have won him headlines and notoriety because they generally have been in opposition to Kelly's positions.
Whereas Wallace sees this opposition as "free and spirited discussion," Kelly sees it as a challenge to his authority. Wallace thinks of the county council as his boss (with another boss being the state health department). Kelly thinks of himself as the policy maker. Kelly calls it a "clash of personalities." Wallace says it as a "clash of styles."
Just last week the county council discussed a key element of Wallace's department - the inspection and licensing of area restaurants, liquor stores, sewers and wells. Wallace said his staff is doing its job, and doing it well. But council members said they have received complaints that his inspectors are "overregulting" - that the health department has "gone overboard and interpreted the rules beyond their original intent" in the words of one council member.
It is another showdown, like many during the past year when Wallace, Kelly and the county council acting as the Board of Health have collided. Letters sent this fall from Kelly to Dr. Neil Solomon, Secretary of the Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene and Wallace's state-side boss, raised questions over Kelly's "inability to maintain a cooperative, open and trusting relationship with. . . Wallace" and circuitously suggested he be removed.
Ironically Kelly directed his appeal to Solomon, a man who has had his own battles with his boss, the governor, over policy decisions. Solomon's response was to urge Kelly to "invite Doctor Wallace into your office for a thorough discussion of your concerns."
All this over a former farm lad from Ohio, who by his own description was a "flaming liberal" when he came out of Antioch College, a man who uses the words "accountability" and "responsibility" throughout his conversations about his job.
Wallace, a tall lanky man with sandy blond hair, has been at his job for three years, and is responsible for the administration of the county's public health - a department that includes family health, day care, geriatric care, immunizations, disease control, alcoholism and drug addiction, mental health programs and environmental health (water, well, septic, air, rodent, food and noise control) - and for the coordination of a budger that exceeds $144 million.
But as the county health officer, Kelly and the council require his opinion on several issues that supercede purely health interests and that is where Wallace often gets into hot water.
"I think that typically I've tended to be rather aggressive on taking positions on issues and I expect that I'm rather confident that I usually have a good position. And I'm willing to discuss that position and defend it if need be. As far as being diplomatic, heck, I don't know," Wallace said.
Wallace and Kelly have hotly debated several issues during the past year: They include the location of the Southern Regional Health Center, the need for the Bowie Ambulatory Center, a move by Wallace and his staff into the County Administration Building from offices near the Prince George's County Hospital and his regulation of the budget. Usually they are on opposing sides.
"Take the Southern Regional Health Center," said Wallace. Kelly wanted to move the county-run public health center to a site five miles away from the recently opened and privately owned Southern Maryland Hospital. It was a maneuver many in the county saw as purely political, another Kelly "clash of personalities" with the hospital's owner, Dr. Francis P. Chiaramonte.
Wallace, as the health officer and adviser to the board of health, was consulted about the location of the ambulatory care center. But he thought the public center should remain near the private hospital. "We think it's important that there be co-location. And that was my position, the position of the department. And I knew full well that this wasn't what Kelly wanted.
"I felt that I was being asked to decide to move their (the county's) facility," Wallace said. "I have no authority to replace it or move it. If it is to be moved then let the person who wishes to move it say he wants to move it. And let that be done in such a way that people know what is happening. That is maybe not being diplomatic. But that is being, I think, responsible and accountable."
In response to a Wallace request that his staff review the relocation of the center, Kelly was later to write that Wallace had "challenged my authority" and "challenged complicated the process. . . of this highly volatile issue by arousing citizen concern."
"Don's always had a lack of understanding about who he should respond to," said John Lally, press aide to Kelly. "He's not a political person and doesn't have to answer to the people. The political reality is that Kelly is the one the citizens look to on any question of pllicy in the county.
"As a planner he is there to provide the best information possible with which the elected official should make the final decision," Lally said.
Wallace, who appears to look at every question philosophically, disagrees even here. "Medicine is really a social science," he said, quoting 19th century physician Rudolf Virchow. "Virchow said, Politics is nothing but medicine on a larger scale,' and a politician has much in common with a physician. A physician is in some ways a businessman, but he also has the very definite need to please his patients. So they'll return to him for more treatment, if you will. A politician is not really different. He has to please his constituency so they'll relect him."
Wallace, the father of three children and a resident of Potomac, was a disease control officer in the District before he ventured into Prince George's. "I came out here actually to pick up a bit of local experience. I was advised by certain people I talked to at the federal level that I shouldn't go to Prince George's County. They said that it's a place where the state can never find me, where it's essentially too remote (for any recognition) from Baltimore and from the state health department.
"And I'm reminded of that whenever I get to a salary issue, because neither the state nor the county seem able to deal with the problem that I have in recruiting personnel, any personnel. There are something like 7.5 per cent of our employees making $20,000 or more. Well, that's half the average for the rest of the county offices.I think about 15 per cent of county employees make more than that and in the school board it's around 20 per cent. I ask you where do you find people with master's degrees and so on who will work for that?"
Wallace is concerned about his "people." He looks on his job as a support for "the soldiers (his staff) who are the peole really out in the front, on the line. I think that my staff has continued to support me (throughout the in-fighting of the past year) because of the fact I'm representing them adequately, and hopefully, well.
"I enjoy working with the council and I think the fact that there is free and even spirited discussion at times with the council indicated that they're working together to come to some sort of decision. What would be very scary to me would be if everything is sort of cut and dried and pat when I walked in there."
Wallace's Scottish family crest is on the wall over his desk. The family motto "Pro Libertate" (For liberty) echoes the tradition of the warrior. "When I was a kid I was always the one who looked after the other littler ones. And I guess now, at least healthwise, my interest is in looking after the people in this county. Sometimes I wonder if I'm accused of being the warrior in the county."