Reformer removed

Environmental health director led progressive programs, resigned after mysterious investigation


A San Francisco public health official, who's earned national recognition in his field for launching progressive environmental health initiatives, announced his resignation in late December under bizarre circumstances.

Dr. Rajiv Bhatia, who served as director of environmental health, left his employer of 17 years after being subjected to a months-long internal investigation he described as baseless.

Once the Department of Public Health concluded its inquiry, Bhatia faced no charges of misconduct. He resigned after securing a settlement agreement, under which the city paid him $155,000.

In an open letter circulated to colleagues and reporters, Bhatia announced he was leaving and commented on an internal cultural shift he said had impeded his work, which examined the health consequences of air pollution, poor housing conditions, low-wage employment, and disparities in life expectancy by neighborhood, among other things.

"Unfortunately, changes in the Department's organization and culture no longer support my pursuit of vigorous and community-oriented public health regulation and advocacy," Bhatia wrote.

"I understand that the new leadership may not share my broad vision of environmental public health," he went on, referencing a 2010 leadership transition in which Director Barbara Garcia took the reins from former department chief Mitch Katz. "Yet, it is deeply disconcerting that they chose to subject me to an aggressive and public investigation into groundless allegations."

Colleen Chawla, deputy director of the health department, said she was prevented from commenting on Bhatia's resignation or statement, because the issue constituted a personnel matter.

Bhatia spearheaded a series of innovative programs that went beyond the scope of conventional public health practices.

"Rajiv was doing pioneering work," said Larry Adelman, co-director of documentary filmmaking company California Newsreel and producer of "Unnatural Causes," a four-part PBS series on health inequity.

"He was concerned with closing the growing gap between health outcomes," Adelman said, noting that the poor have a lower life expectancy on average than those with higher incomes. "I know other public health departments were looking to his work and trying to learn from him."

Bob Prentice, who served as DPH deputy director until 1999, sounded a similar note, saying Bhatia's environmental health work was based on the idea that "fundamental inequalities in life produce inequities in health."

Bhatia's departure is only the latest in a series of resignations submitted over the last year or so, causing some to question whether Garcia's philosophy or management style triggered the departure of more than a half-dozen high-ranking health department staff members.

"Is this about a management culture that wants to suppress the kinds of things Rajiv has represented?" Prentice wondered.

The environmental health director first learned he was under investigation in June, when he returned after a vacation only to learn he'd been locked out of his office.

"They finished doing their investigation in August," Bhatia explained in a recent phone interview. "I was removed from all roles. They refused to allow me to go back to my work."

Instead, he says he was directed to work on "trivial special assignments" that had little to do with the goals of the Program on Health Equity and Sustainability, which he'd created.

Bhatia says he still has not been told exactly what city officials hoped to find when they initially placed him under investigation, or what the allegation was. But based on the questions they asked him, "it appears what they were investigating was a program ... initiated by a mayor's executive directive," he said, referencing a food policy directive initiated under former Mayor Gavin Newsom.