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Accolades For Auerbach, Public Health Chief Falling On Sword

John Auerbach, outgoing head of the state Department of Public Health (Photo: Office of Gov. Deval Patrick)

A few years ago, a former newspaper boss of mine took a public fall from a very high place for making a decision that turned out to be wrong. I knew him as brilliant, wise and deeply virtuous. When I asked him what happened, he said something like: “I felt like an outfielder who was constantly racing to catch potentially disastrous fly balls. I caught one after another after another, averting impending disasters — and then I missed one.”

I keep thinking of that answer as I watch the accolades roll in for John Auerbach, the Massachusetts Commissioner of Public Health who has resigned amid the exploding scandal around a scientist who falsified reports at the state drug lab.

The latest comes today on Paul Levy’s “Not Running A Hospital” blog. It begins:

It is a sign of the times that one of the most able, experienced, and thoughtful of our state’s public administrators has had to take the fall for a series of events that would have been virtually impossible for him to prevent.

Auerbach said in his resignation statement that he felt a responsibility to uphold the Patrick administration’s high ideals, to which Levy responds:

But the “high ideals” he cites of the Governor apparently do not include the concept that this could have happened in any administration (and indeed apparently started well before John’s tenure). Those ideals apparently do not include the concept that someone who has been an exemplary public servant deserves a chance (if he wanted) to try to remedy the underlying problem of the agency. Those ideals apparently do not include any self-blame for the people still higher in the administration, who filed the extremely tight budgets for this agency for several years that may also have contributed to an inability to conduct proper oversight.

Levy’s is just the latest note in a chorus of praise and regret that has followed Auerbach’s resignation announcement. A colleague sent me a one-word email — “Tragic.” — when the news first broke. Official statements have tended to go like this one: Continue reading