Science

Head of L.A. County public health department retires

The head of Los Angeles County's public health department — one of the largest agencies of its kind in the nation — announced he is retiring, now that a controversial campaign to break apart his agency has been abandoned.

Jonathan Fielding was named the first head of the public health agency in 2006, when county supervisors separated it from the department that runs the county's large hospitals and network of community medical clinics. He had previously served in a similar position as the county's health officer. He is one of the highest-paid county department heads, with a salary of $309,494.

The public health department, with a more than $750-million annual budget, is tasked with a wide range of health and safety measures, including restaurant inspections, investigating disease outbreaks and running clinics focused on immunizations and other public health issues.

The agency recently survived an attempt by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a nonprofit that provides HIV and AIDS services to the county and is a frequent critic of the public health department, to break the city of Los Angeles off into its own public health system.

The foundation gathered enough support to place a measure on the ballot, but both the city and county sued to stop it from going forward. In January, a judge preemptively struck the ballot measure down.

Fielding called that effort "a very serious threat" to public health, and said he had delayed his retirement until the initiative was defeated.

"I thought about [retiring] last year, but when that ballot initiative reared its head, I felt I really had to stay with the department and fight for everybody in Los Angeles County," he said in an interview.

He announced his plans to retire in a letter to department staff Thursday, but said he will stay on until a replacement is installed. The county is launching a nationwide search for a new director that is expected to take about six months.

Fielding said he will turn his focus to work at UCLA, where the Fielding School of Public Health was named in his honor after he and wife, Karin, donated $50 million to the university in 2012.

In his letter to employees, he cited a series of public health department accomplishments, including building a "state of the art public health laboratory" and new public health centers, reducing food-borne illness through the restaurant grading system and securing a $600-million court judgment to reduce the threat of lead poisoning to low-income residents.

Apart from its fights with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the department has weathered scandals, including reports of widespread fraudulent billing by substance abuse treatment providers. And earlier this month, the department came under scrutiny from the county Board of Supervisors after reports that health and safety complaints at nursing homes were not always investigated thoroughly.

abby.sewell@latimes.com

Times staff writer Eryn Brown contributed to this report.

ll@latimes.com

Times staff writer Eryn Brown contributed to this report.

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