TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration announced Friday that it is shaking up the leadership in agencies on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. Top staffers responsible for fighting the virus, combating the negative social consequences of the pandemic and getting unemployment claims processed are all leaving their current roles.
• After two years at the helm of the Department of Children and Families, Chad Poppell is resigning effective Feb. 19, according to a letter he sent to DeSantis.
• Shevaun Harris, who is serving as acting secretary for the Agency for Health Care Administration since October, was tapped as Poppell’s replacement.
• Simone Marstiller will take over for Harris. Marstiller previously served as secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice and as a First District Court of Appeal judge for six years.
• Jonathan Satter tendered his resignation as Secretary of the Department of Management Services, which oversees a team of more than 1,000 employees and an $800 million budget, serving as the support agency for state government, state universities, counties, local municipalities, and independent taxing districts throughout Florida. Since early last year, Satter has also been in charge of the state’s troubled online unemployment system. USA Today reported Friday he would leave the agency this month.
Poppell’s abrupt departure comes less than a month after he acknowledged that his agency needs to do a better job of preventing sexual abuse of children in foster care. Poppell’s agency was also criticized last year when it emerged that executives at the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence used tax dollars to pad compensation packages of its executives. The nonprofit’s contract with the state was with Poppell’s agency.
“The First Lady and I thank Chad Poppell for his years of dedication and service to the state of Florida,” said DeSantis in a statement. “As the Secretary of the Department of Children and Families, he has brought about transformational change to Florida’s child welfare system and was instrumental in the passage of the DCF Accountability Act. We wish him well as he moves on to new opportunities.”
Poppell was making nearly $147,000 per year as head of the agency.
Under Poppell’s tenure, his agency pushed to spend more money on services intended to keep families together and children out of foster care. A new Quality Office was also set up with Poppell assigning more than 100 employees to more closely monitor the work of child protective investigators and case managers.
The move was in part in response to criticism that Florida’s complex privatized foster care system — which puts put nonprofit groups in charge of foster care in each of the state’s 19 judicial circuits — has made it too easy for agencies to pass the blame in cases where foster children die or are abused.
Poppell also backed a controversial plan to place troubled foster teens in a secure juvenile justice facility that critics said would be no different than arresting them. The agency later dropped the plan.
“The job of DCF secretary is tough and often thankless,” said State Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, who as chair of the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs, was sometimes critical of Poppell. “I am grateful for Secretary Poppell’s service and look forward to implementing much needed systemic change with his successor.”
Harris had been only the temporary head of the Agency for Health Care Administration, which is overseeing major parts of the state’s response to the coronavirus. She’ll now move to replace Poppell and, in turn, be replaced by Marstiller.
“Simone has top-notch credentials, is a former judge and knows how to build and motivate a team to achieve results,” DeSantis said.
As the head of the Department of Juvenile Justice, Marstiller drew some fire from criminal justice advocates over the summer. They alleged that Marstiller’s department was not testing the state’s child detainees and department staff aggressively enough for the coronavirus during the state’s worst virus surge.
However, the executive director of the Florida Juvenile Justice Association, an advocacy group aimed at improving the state’s youth justice system, said at the time that the agency did a superlative job of keeping the virus out of facilities.
As of Feb. 2, Marstiller’s department had recorded more than 1,100 coronavirus cases among youth detainees and staff.
Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration, which regulates the state’s more than 40,000 health care facilities, has had three leaders in a little more than five months. In September, the agency’s secretary, Mary Mayhew, announced she was stepping down to take a job as the president and CEO of the Florida Hospital Association.
Two weeks after Mayhew left, DeSantis appointed Harris to run the agency on an acting basis.
The agency sits on the front lines of the state’s coronavirus pandemic response. And yet, for months, other top positions at the agency have gone unfilled. Marstiller will enter an office with no chief of staff, and therefore no one to oversee the office’s heads of communications, legislative affairs or information technology.
Similarly, the Department of Children and Families will play a major role in the state’s pandemic response going forward. Florida officials are bracing for a wave of evictions later this year which will ripple across the state’s social fabric in unpredictable ways.
“There’s a lot of people in need,” Poppell told a state Senate committee in January.
There was little public indication of the leadership changes before they were announced Friday. Harris appeared before the Senate Select Committee on Pandemic Preparedness and Response Thursday. Poppell spoke before the Senate Subcommittee on Health and Human Services Wednesday.
The fourth major personnel move disclosed Friday involved the departing secretary of Department of Management Services. Satter is making about $146,000 in his role at the top of his department, which oversees the state government’s business operations.
Satter, a commercial real estate executive, was appointed as secretary of his department by DeSantis in December 2019.
A month into the state’s unemployment crisis last year, Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity struggled to take and process applications for unemployment. In response, DeSantis put Satter in charge of the system. While the unemployment network did show improvement under Satter, millions more was spent to mitigate its shortcomings and many applicants still complain that glitches make it difficult to receive their unemployment insurance payments.
The departures are more evidence that Florida’s government is going through a tumultuous time. In December, a top communications aide, Fred Piccolo, left the governor’s office.
And it’s been rumored for weeks that DeSantis’ chief of staff, Shane Strum, is also looking to leave. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported last week that Strum is eyeing the CEO position at Broward Health.
Times/Herald Tallahassee reporters Ana Ceballos and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this story.