I-Team: Erie County social service commissioner's resignation raises questions

Legislature chairman says he ran agency well
Posted at 6:20 PM, Dec 29, 2017
and last updated 2017-12-29 18:21:12-05

Erie County Legislature Chairman John Mills was “shocked” to hear about Thursday's abrupt resignation of county social services commissioner Al Dirschberger, who is under criminal investigation for an alleged incident with a female subordinate in Albany earlier this month.

“This came out of, as far as I'm concerned, came out of left field,” Mills said.

Mills was satisfied with the way Dirschberger was running the largest department in county government with a budget of nearly $600 million per year.

“I thought he did a reasonably good job at social services,” Mills said.

Prior to his appointment as social services commissioner in 2015, Dirschberger worked at Gateway Longview, a social service agency for young people, and as a teacher at Erie Community College. 

Now many in Erie County politics are raising questions about whether there may have been warning signs earlier in Dirschberger's career. One source, who did not want to be identified because of the criminal investigation, said Dirschberger was known to have an "aggressive" personality.

“There are rumors going around, which I won't comment on,” Mills said, “but there are rumors going around about some other things that may have happened in the past.”

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said Dirschberger passed a criminal background check and came highly recommended -- in part because of his work with Journey's End refugee services, which is another social service agency.

“He was not a member of county government before,” Poloncarz said. “He came from the not-for-profit sector. He had very, very high recommendations from those that he served with.”

The county now finds itself looking for its third DSS commissioner in as many years after Dirschberger's predecessor came under fire for an alarming number of high-profile deaths of children at the hands of their relatives.

“It's tough to find the right person, it seems like, for whatever reason,” Mills said. “I thought Al was the right person.”

But when Dirschberger appeared before legislators last week to discuss budget issues, Mills said he seemed pre-occupied.

“There was something about him that was different at that time,” Mills said. “That bothered me. I said to a couple of my colleagues last Thursday, 'Is something going on with Al?' And sure enough, bingo.”