PORTLAND, Maine — Douglas Gardner, who led Portland’s Department of Health and Human Services through a tumultuous time in which city homelessness skyrocketed and state and federal aid programs were under a near constant threat of cuts, will leave his city post.
Portland City Manager Mark Rees announced on Monday that Gardner will step down from his City Hall position to pursue a job in the private sector.
Gardner has spent the last nine years as Portland’s DHHS director, and the previous six as the long-term care administrator for the city’s Barron Center hospital.
After his last day in Portland on June 27, Gardner will take a job as the vice president of operations for North Country Associates, a long-term care company based in Lewiston.
During Gardner’s tenure as Portland’s DHHS director, the city saw demand at its homeless shelters rise significantly, from less than 300 people per night to nearly 500 between 2009 and 2013.
In an effort to drive down those numbers and place more people in stable housing, Gardner helped spearhead a multifaceted plan to end homelessness, which included implementation of a program requiring people staying at city shelters to work steadily with councilors on plans toward permanent housing.
“While I am certainly proud of so much we have been able to accomplish, including retooling the city’s restaurant inspections program, protecting our citizens from secondhand smoke, healthy living initiatives, welcoming new Mainers to Portland and [providing] high-quality, compassionate care at the Barron Center each and every day, I think I am most proud of what we have achieved in the area of homelessness,” Gardner said in a statement Monday.
Under Gardner, the city began reforming and widely publicizing its restaurant inspection as well, responding in part to controversy surrounding the 2012 closure of three waterfront eateries because of rat infestations and other health code violations.
Gardner’s department also helped advocate for the ban on smoking in more than 50 public parks and plazas last year.
Using $1.8 million in federal grant money, Gardner helped oversee a number of healthy-living initiatives in the city, including the addition of calorie counts on many of the city restaurants’ menus and the installation of four new fitness courses at city schools, among other things.
In early 2013, publications Men’s Health and Women’s Health each named Portland one of America’s top cities for healthy living, and earlier this year, the National League of Cities again recognized Portland for its efforts on that front.
Gardner also weathered many significant political debates over the distribution of aid to DHHS clients during his time at City Hall, including repeated efforts by some lawmakers in Augusta to dial back MaineCare benefits or restrict who could receive general assistance.
After losing out on a long-held yearly federal grant to provide medical care for the city’s homeless population, Gardner successfully lobbied the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration to secure $360,000 to delay the closure of the city’s Health Care for the Homeless Clinic.
“Doug’s passion and understanding of the issues surrounding health and human services in Maine has made him an excellent advocate for the residents of Portland,” said Rees in a statement. “While we are sad to lose his leadership, we wish him well in his new endeavor.”
Rees has appointed Julie Sullivan, the director of the DHHS Public Health Division, as acting director of the department while a search is launched for a new permanent director.