Sack-A-Flack

State health department's respected spokesman gets his walking papers

Brad Christensen is that rarest of public information officers, in that he does what he's supposed to do -- provide good information in a timely manner. From 1993 until a few weeks ago, Christensen served as communications director and chief PIO for the Arizona Department of Health Services.

But in a move that has troubled journalists and officials around the state, Christensen's bosses demoted him this month -- officially it's a temporary transfer -- to the Bureau of Epidemiology and Disease Control Services. He says, somewhat whimsically, "I'm figuring out what they want me to do until I'm not working here anymore."

That promises to be sooner rather than later. Christensen was given two months to find a new job. He's at a loss for why he's getting the boot.

"To be called into a room and told by someone [new DHS deputy director Leslie Schwalbe] who started work on December 13 that you're essentially being canned wasn't easy," he says. "Especially when it was done by someone who doesn't have a background in media relations, and certainly doesn't understand my job."

Perhaps, Christensen adds, DHS's interim director, Dr. James Schamadan, and his newly appointed top brass, just wanted a change.

"I'm a little uncomfortable talking with the outside world about personnel changes," Schwalbe says of Christensen's demise at DHS, "but I will tell you in general that we are trying to change the image of the Department of Health Services, and with that we're changing some of the boxes in the organization. We're really looking forward to marketing our successes and programs in the next months and after that."

Christensen says he "understand[s] how things work, and that when new people come on board, they sometimes like to make changes. I had a lot of fun at my job, and I'd like to think that I was effective in helping the public and media. And, no, I didn't know it was coming until they told me I'd be going to Epidemiology."

Whatever the reason, word of Christensen's "relocation" sent shock waves through DHS -- the state's largest agency with more than a $600 million budget -- and elsewhere.

"Brad has been a terrific resource for me and the project," says Debbie McCune Davis, who manages the Arizona Partnership for Infant Immunization. "I've called him with some off-the-wall suggestions from time to time, and he'll always push me into something more productive. Unfortunately, things like what happened to Brad happen in the political environment all the time."

Says Robert Schackner, the director of DHS's Child Fatality Review program, "I really think Brad has helped save lives by getting the word out about our findings. He took it upon himself to write press releases, and he did them better than me. His departure is a big loss for me."

Christensen, who earned $58,000 a year, won numerous awards during his tenure, including top honors in 1999 from the National Public Health Information Coalition for his news releases and an eye-grabbing project that employed slides in movie theaters to deglamorize tobacco use by movie stars.

On January 6, Jeanette Shea Ramirez of DHS's sexual-abstinence education program wrote to Christensen, "Your ability to coordinate activities with our contractor, Cooley Advertising, has been wonderful. I hope everyone knows just how much you are appreciated."

Todd Cooley, that firm's chief executive officer, knows.

"Brad is an extremely effective communicator, and he was a big, big supporter of our campaign," Cooley says. "Trying to be creative and effective when discussing sexual abstinence isn't easy, and Brad's input was extremely helpful to us."

Christensen joined DHS in September 1993, coming over from the weekly Arizona Capitol Times, where he was managing editor. Jack Dillenberg, then DHS's director, says he hired Christensen because of his background in print media.

"I thought the department at the time was doing less than a good job with the print side of expressing its mission and activities," says Dillenberg, who now is a health officer in west Los Angeles, "and I was looking for someone who had credibility and respect among the press people of Arizona. Brad really took to the job, and as he got more experience with public health, he took a leadership role in promoting our programs. He has a meticulous reputation for honesty."

Christensen does seem honest to a fault, which, sadly, is an unusual quality for a PIO. He always was prompt in returning calls, and in notifying reporters about the status of their requests for public records, interviews or information.

That quality was put to the test during the regime of Governor J. Fife Symington III. Symington's minions issued marching orders to his state agencies in the mid-1990s that they weren't to aid New Timesreporters in gathering public records for stories.

Symington's stance repelled Christensen -- and, for that matter, then-director Dillenberg. But risking the possible loss of his job, he continued to process public-records requests more promptly than PIOs for other state agencies. Christensen also informally directed reporters from this paper to the proper sources of information.

Dillenberg says he, too, wonders why Christensen didn't pass muster with the new bosses at DHS. "Obviously, any director is entitled to have their own person in place," he adds. "But based on what I've seen and heard, I don't understand what the hell's going on."

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