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Health board members resign after La Plata County takeover

Commissioners took over hiring duties Tuesday; three board members had resigned by Thursday
Shere Byrd, former president of the La Plata County Board of Health, was one of three members to resign this week after County commissioners seized much of the board’s power on Tuesday. (Reuben Schafir/Durango Herald file)

Three members of the newly created La Plata County Board of Health resigned by Thursday – two days after county commissioners stripped the board of its duty to hire a public health director.

As of Thursday evening, Board President Shere Byrd, Vice President Michael Murphy and Dr. Cecil Fraley had informed the county of their resignations.

The resignations punctuate a moment of upheaval in the county’s process of establishing its own health department. When the lights at San Juan Basin Public Health go off on Dec. 31, La Plata County Public Health must be a turnkey agency prepared to take over its duties, from restaurant inspections to communicable disease investigations to emergency preparedness and response.

The members’ resignation are also a significant loss for the board.

Byrd, a biology professor at Fort Lewis College, was the only board member to also serve on SJBPH’s governing board and takes with her a wealth of institutional knowledge: Murphy brought extensive experience as a managing principal at the consulting firm Durango Health Partners and as the former interim CEO of Centura Mercy Regional Medical Center; and Fraley was the only board member appointed to a full five-year term and takes with her a broad base of knowledge from her local, regional and statewide work in health care.

“I felt my prior medical board experiences, Centura Health and (Colorado) Health Care Policy and Finance Medical Services Board, would be in service to the BOH as it navigated its new role,” Fraley said in an email Friday to The Durango Herald. “With the change in structure to an advisory board, I felt that experience was no longer applicable.”

In justifying their reclamation of hiring powers, county officials cited two factors: first was the exigent need to hire a director, a process that had been hampered by scheduling difficulties with the seven-member board. The second reason for the move was to enable the Board of Health to engage with those currently providing public health services at SJBPH. The two entities had been kept intentionally separate to ensure that any SJBPH officials applying for the director position would not become the recipients of any perceived or real favoritism.

“It has become really important for us to be more nimble and more efficient with resources,” said County Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton in an interview with the Herald four days before Tuesday’s vote.

Under the resolution approved by commissioners, the Board of Health will take over governance of the new department on Jan. 1, 2024. The resolution also shrinks the board from seven to five members, meaning the three members who resigned will likely be replaced by only one person.

Michael Murphy, former vice president of the La Plata County Board of Health, was one of three members to resign this week after County commissioners seized much of the board’s power on Tuesday. (Reuben Schafir/Durango Herald file)

“The people who came on, it’s an amazing group of people ... so, to say that we were not nimble enough to do that was kind of disrespectful,” Byrd said. “... I thought it would be unfair to a new executive director to have one set of bosses for eight months and then a new set of bosses, who may have or may not have similar desires for what the department should look like.”

According to multiple board members, they were informed of the likely shift in powers without much conversation. Commissioners Matt Salk and Porter-Norton called each member to deliver the news the week before the vote, but the topic was not discussed at the May 4 Board of Health meeting. One board member offered public comment on the matter Tuesday, minutes before commissioners voted.

Both Fraley and Byrd said the material change in duties – not the process through which changes occurred – prompted their departure.

Murphy could not be reached for comment Friday.

In response to the county’s concerns about the pace of the hiring process, Byrd said discomfort is inherent to the process. She also said much of the delay stemmed from the fact that meetings have taken place on the county’s schedule and run according to agenda’s set by county officials.

The board members, all of whom are volunteers, have participated in three-hour biweekly meetings on the county’s schedule since early February.

Byrd expressed frustration that the scheduling and content of the meetings were set by the county.

“We didn’t own our own schedule,” she said. “I think most of these people could have done with less onboarding and more direct business, but that wasn’t the way they chose to do it. And so now that it’s a problem, we’re deemed not nimble enough – and we never controlled that, they did.”

Porter-Norton resisted that characterization, saying Byrd helped review agenda items proposed by staff before meetings.

The exodus also begs the question: Are the benefits of expediting the hiring process negated by the need to rehire and train another board member?

“I don’t see it that way at all,” Porter-Norton said.

The county has hired the Otowi Group, a consulting firm that assisted in the dissolution of Tri-County Health, to assist in the process. Now that the Board of County Commissioners has reclaimed hiring powers for the director position, Porter-Norton said the Board of Health will start to see the benefits of having the SJBPH staff in the room more frequently.

“We will find as many ways as possible to get the information we need,” she said. “This whole model, as I have said publicly many times, is taking flexibility and nimbleness and adaptive management (into account). So having people who no longer chose to be in this new role – temporarily, by the way, until (Jan. 1, 2024) – we’ll have to adapt. This is another thing we’ll have to adapt to.”

Byrd emphasized that she is rooting for the county’s success.

“I think they’ll figure it out,” she said.

And Porter-Norton, wishing the three departing members well, is unfazed.

“I don’t think this is going to set us back at all,” she said.

rschafir@durangoherald.com

This story has been updated to reflect that the three resignations on the La Plata County Board of Health took place on Wednesday and Thursday. An earlier story said the resignations occurred on only Thursday. The error was made in editing.



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