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Supervisor wanted former New Hanover County health director out months before pandemic even began

Phillip Tarte was dismissed at the end of January 2021 after more than a year of complaints were waged against him in his role as public health director. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Days before the Covid-19 virus first rooted in New Hanover County, then-health director Phillip Tarte was on the brink of losing his job — for the second time — as his supervisor continued to levy accusations of incompetence. 

It was March 2020, and Kathy Stoute, assistant county manager in charge of New Hanover County Department of Health and Human Services, wanted New Hanover County Public Health Director Phillip Tarte removed. 

RELATED: Top health official out in New Hanover; Human Services board member also gone, cites commissioner vaccines

It wasn’t the first time Stoute, who has since retired, had issues with the director — who was officially fired at the end of January 2021. Stoute recommended Tarte’s dismissal first in November 2019, going so far as to schedule a “pre-dismissal hearing.”

Documents obtained by Port City Daily show Stoute considered Tarte’s leadership over the department a failure even before the pandemic. She charged him with being unresponsive to superiors and staff, late or absent from meetings, and guilty of having 13,249 unread emails in his inbox. After giving vague replies to county leaders, who asked for updates on the then-fledgling pandemic, Tarte was accused of being derelict in his pandemic response, too.

“Your most recent egregious performance failure was a demonstrated inability to lead, in your role as public health director,” Stoute wrote in a March 5 letter to Tarte, “with regard to being proactive and taking the initiative to execute a plan and provide updates and education in response to the global crisis surrounding the Coronavirus outbreak.”

That was two weeks before New Hanover County announced the first Covid-19 case within its borders. Stoute had summoned Tarte to a pre-dismissal hearing with the chief human resources officer and deputy county managers. It was Tarte’s chance to defend himself against allegations that he was incompetent and neglecting his duties. 

The hearing never took place. Following the orders of county manager Chris Coudriet, Stoute cancelled it. 

“We simply could not lose our public health focus by shifting attention to the performance deficiencies of the public health director while in the midst of the pandemic,” Coudriet wrote months later in a letter to Tarte. 

Tarte continued in the health director role through 2020. Coudriet docked his pay in August, and Stoute retired in September. 

In October, Donna Fayko, who was previously the social services director in Rowan County, became the New Hanover County Health and Human Services director.

She dismissed Tarte on Jan. 27, more than a year after Stoute first recommended his ouster. 

According to the documents, the former health director was unreachable and absent from meetings, even as Covid-19 vaccine logistics were crystallizing in December. 

In Tarte’s dismissal letter, Fayko stated he showed no sense of urgency or leadership in the effort to vaccinate New Hanover County residents. 

“You have demonstrated an inability to administer the vaccine process in response to the Coronavirus pandemic, to the extent that a team had to be assembled that excludes you,” she wrote. 

‘I consider your lack of responsiveness and lack of attention to such an important matter as reprehensible’

Stoute became Tarte’s supervisor in July 2019, after the county executed a long-planned merger of the social services department and board of health. The move was made possible by changes to the state law, which sparked discussions as far back as 2013. 

Speaking before the board of commissioners, Coudriet advocated for consolidating the two entities in March 2019. By that time, more than 30 other counties had already made the switch. Bringing together the social services and health wings of county government eliminated red tape and brought two overlapping departments under one roof, proponents of the move argued.

Tarte was hired in 2016, a few years after the county started brainstorming consolidation. He previously worked as the Union County health director. 

Stoute took charge of the newly consolidated health and human services department as an assistant county manager, and recommended Tarte’s dismissal after four months in the role. 

Tarte failed to work through a backlog of environmental health inspections before the problem became public, Stoute alleged in a letter written after a Nov. 2019 pre-dismissal hearing. Stoute stated that after placing Tarte on administrative leave prior to the hearing, she accessed his email account. 

“I was appalled when I discovered and confirmed there were 13,249 unread emails in your inbox,” she wrote. 

Stoute decided not to fire Tarte, despite the many complaints already waged against him:

(Port City Daily/Documents from New Hanover County)
(Port City Daily/Documents from New Hanover County)

Instead, she put forth a series of conditions:

(Port City Daily/Documents from New Hanover County)
(Port City Daily/Documents from New Hanover County)

If Tarte violated any of them, Stoute said he would be re-evaluated. Tarte signed off on the conditions. 

On New Year’s Eve 2019, Stoute emailed Tarte and the chief human resources officer, faulting Tarte for failing to improve. He was not meeting expectations and was not easy to do business with, Stoute claimed.

The next pre-dismissal hearing was planned for March, during the pandemic’s early weeks but cancelled on Coudriet’s orders. According to Stoute, Coudriet emailed Tarte on Feb. 24 to inquire about the novel Coronavirus outbreak. 

“In your role as the local public health director, one would have expected that (sic) this outbreak to have been a priority concern of yours,” Stoute wrote to Tarte. “Once again, you failed to provide a well-thought out timely response.” 

A day later, Coudriet followed up with the health director, asking if the county was doing enough. 

“You provided a short two-sentence reply that left a lot of unanswered questions,” Stoute wrote. 

She added that, amid the burgeoning public health crisis, “we had [to] work around you and replace you,” due to Tarte’s lack of urgency. 

“You were negligent in carrying out your duties as public health director when you failed to be proactive and responsive, therefore, ensuring public health protection with regard to the coronavirus outbreak,” Stoute wrote. “I consider your lack of responsiveness and lack of attention to such an important matter as reprehensible.”

Coudriet convened with Tarte in August. In the time since his last run-in with Stoute, Tarte had been accused of making a sexual innuendo in the presence of a female and male employee. Tarte also bungled an element of the county’s effort to roll out limitations on vaping and smoking in public places, an ordinance that was approved by the board of commissioners in November 2020, according to Coudriet.

In his eventual dismissal letter, Fayko claimed Tarte professed to be solely dedicated to preparing for the new smoking and vaping ordinance —which went into effect Feb. 1. — despite the severity of a global pandemic hitting New Hanover County. By the end of November, more than 50 New Hanover County residents had died from Covid-19.

After meeting in August 2020, Coudriet docked Tarte’s pay down to $131,603 — the midpoint in the health director salary range — and told the health director, “there is no doubt in my mind that dismissal could have been a justifiable disciplinary action to be taken against you.”

Because of Tarte, an attorney for the City of Wilmington wasn’t able to fully voice his opinions on the smoking and vaping ban, according to Coudriet, who added that Tarte’s missteps had affected the relationship between the county and the city, and risked tainting the county’s credibility.

“This was not an isolated incident with regard to your demonstrated performance deficiencies, which have placed this organization at risk,” Coudriet wrote in August.

Still, Tarte remained employed. Coudriet added there was another important development to be aware of: Tarte had a new boss. 

Stoute would be retiring, and New Hanover County hired Fayko to permanently helm the consolidated health and human services agency. 

‘What can I do for you?’

Former New Hanover County Health Director Philip Tarte signs a beam at the now-finished Department of Health and Human Services headquarters. Tarte’s former supervisor began accusing him of incompetence in Nov. 2019. He was dismissed in January 2021. (Port City Daily/Courtesy New Hanover County)

It was January 11, 2021, and the county’s Covid-19 vaccine response command team was set to update the executive leadership team on the vaccine rollout. As county leaders huddled on Microsoft Teams, Coudriet posed direct questions about the vaccine response. 

Tarte was absent from the call. Fayko messaged him, imploring him to join and answer Coudriet’s questions. 

“What can I do for you?” Tarte asked Coudriet upon arriving to the virtual meeting, according to Fayko.

Fayko called this event “an embarrassment.” In Tarte’s dismissal letter, she stated that when asked about the incident, Tarte responded he and Coudriet had known each other for a long time; that was how they communicated. 

In the same meeting, Tarte announced he was working to procure quantities of Covid-19 vaccine for Wilmington Health Associates, getting them involved in the vaccination effort. 

“Seeing as how this was the first time that I or any member of the vaccine response command team had been informed of any such conversation, I requested information from you regarding the conversations you had with WHA,” Fayko wrote. “The information you provided was different from information that I acquired separately, creating an overall concern regarding the credibility of our vaccine response efforts.” 

After Stoute retired and Fayko took over, Tarte, who could not immediately be reached for comment, continued to serve as the face of New Hanover County Public Health. Tarte’s name was removed from the county website in late January and Coudriet told the board of commissioners that he was no longer employed by New Hanover County. 

In his final pre-dismissal hearing on Jan. 22, Tarte claimed problems between him and Stoute were the result of a personality conflict and that he was improving, despite the charges against him.

“You stated that you are the best health director in the State of North Carolina,” Fayko wrote. She then stated his annual performance review had been scored a 1.6 out of 5, and she would not be supportive of giving Tarte another chance. Tarte’s last day was Jan. 27.

David Howard, previously the assistant health director, is filling Tarte’s role on an interim basis.

In a statement, Fayko said she wishes Tarte the best in his future endeavors.

“Our Public Health team will continue to lead our community toward better health and wellness,” she said. “They are dedicated to the community and our health initiatives, and since February of 2020 have done incredible work in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I am eager to move forward, with a continued focus of serving every single person in our community.”

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