Demand for City AIDS Czar’s Resignation

Charging that Frank Oldham has “lost all credibility in the community,” a leading AIDS service organization has demanded that Oldham, the citywide coordinator for AIDS policy, resign just four months after he joined the Bloomberg administration. “Either Frank Oldham has been lying to the New York City AIDS community from the day of his appointment as the head of the Mayor’s Office of AIDS Policy Coordination, or he has been disrespected by the Bloomberg Administration in an unbelievable manner,” read an editorial by Housing Works, a leading AIDS services group, that was distributed to AIDS activists and reporters on May 13. “In either case, the consequence is that Oldham has lost all credibility in the community only a few short months into his job, thereby greatly damaging, if not destroying, his effectiveness. Because of this, we believe that Oldham has no responsible choice but to resign.” The resignation demand followed the release of the $44.5 billion city budget which included proposals for privatizing nearly 1,300 case manager jobs at the HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA), a city agency that serves some 31,000 people with AIDS, or, under a separate proposal, cutting 400 case manager jobs there. The budget also took Oldham’s office with its staff of roughly ten and an annual budget of $700,000 out of City Hall, where it is under Deputy Mayor Dennis M. Walcott, and moved it to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, where it will report to Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the health commissioner, beginning on July 1 when the 2004 fiscal year begins. Additionally, activists said that a request from Oldham to the members of the AIDS Housing Task Force to weigh HASA case management issues was meant to start the process of privatizing HASA case manager jobs. Oldham said he was not aware of the proposals prior to the April 15 release of the budget. Activists said he either lacked the clout to make policy or he was not being truthful with AIDS service providers. “Frank is walking around telling people that he knew nothing about this happening,” said Charles King, co-president of Housing Works. “Nothing about this until the last minute.” Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg first made the HASA privatization proposal in a March 13 speech. He also named Oldham as his point man on AIDS policy then. A March 27 summit at Gracie Mansion between senior administration officials and 43 AIDS groups was seen by at least some attendees as the first step in implementing the proposal though administration officials denied that. “Clearly when they had this meeting at Gracie Mansion they knew this was in the budget and they were lying to us,” King said. “[Oldham] spends the next two weeks out in the community saying these bad things aren’t going to happen. All of a sudden this gets sprung on us and his response is ‘I knew nothing about this.’” HASA was formally created under a 1997 city law. While AIDS groups have long sought to make HASA more effective they have fought just as hard to preserve the agency. Housing Works has successfully used the city law—Local Law 49—in four lawsuits against the city to improve services for people with AIDS. Oldham told Gay City News he would not be stepping down. He defended the administration’s moves and himself. “I certainly have not been dishonest and never have been and never will be,” he said. “Mayor Bloomberg has the highest integrity and commitment to people living with HIV and AIDS.” Oldham said it was typical to have functions like his in health departments and moving his office there would not diminish its influence. “It’s a reorganization,” he said. “To put it objectively, it’s a reorganization… I think you’ll find the majority of them across the country are in health departments.” He learned of the move in a phone call from the health department soon after the budget was released, and given the size of city government and its budget, that was not unusual, Oldham said. “I’ve been in city governments for most of my career,” Oldham said. “It’s not atypical for a budget to come out and in a budget of this size for people to not know all the details in that budget… I don’t feel blindsided by it and I know I will not be disempowered by the move. I have the commitment from the mayor and Deputy Mayor Walcott and the commissioner of health that this office will remain empowered to carry out the mayor’s charge.” Oldham also said he had no hidden agenda in asking the AIDS Housing Task Force to look at case management issues. “I definitely understand their sensitivity on this,” he said. “Our intentions are exactly what we stated and that is to have input from providers, including Housing works, on HIV case management at HASA as well as AIDS housing.” Other AIDS groups had a mixed response to the resignation demand. Daliah Heller, executive director of Citywide Harm Reduction, neither endorsed nor opposed it. “I think at this point the integrity of the office has been called into question because we were told straight out by Bloomberg that Frank Oldham was going to be responsible,” she said. “Unfortunately with the recent action by the Bloomberg administration it seems like decisions regarding AIDS policy are being made far above his head.” Jennifer Flynn, co-director of the New York City AIDS Housing Network, said Oldham should step down if only to protest the Bloomberg administration proposals.

“I think that Mayor Bloomberg’s policies are so incredibly terrible that anybody who cares about people with AIDS should not be working in his administration so, yes, I think he should resign,” she said. “There is a long history of great heroes who have resigned from various administrations to express their discontent… I think that would be great asset to our cause.” On May 9, prior to the Housing Works’ call for Oldham’s resignation, the New York AIDS Coalition (NYAC) and some 70 AIDS and healthcare groups wrote to Bloomberg to express their “grave concerns” about the proposals. The letter supported leaving Oldham and the AIDS policy office in City Hall. The HIV Health and Human Services Planning Council of New York, the group that directs the spending of a large portion of federal AIDS dollars in the city, is sending a letter, also drafted prior to the Housing Works editorial, to Bloomberg expressing a view similar to NYAC’s.