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La Plata County approves contract with interim public health director

Theresa Anselmo likely to serve at least through February
Theresa Anselmo will serve as the interim director of La Plata County Public Health, likely through at least Feb. 9, 2024. She has previously worked as the executive director of the Colorado Association of Local Public Health Officials. (Courtesy of Theresa Anselmo)

The La Plata Board of County Commissioners voted Tuesday to approve an independent contractor agreement with Theresa Anselmo, who will serve as interim director of the county’s public health department.

With just five months left to assemble a new public health agency, the vote brings to a close a lengthy, and at times dramatic, process of bringing aboard a director.

Anselmo spent 3 1/2 years as the executive director of Colorado Association of Local Public Health Officials. She has also worked for the professional association representing the state’s local health departments and has served as a program manager at various local public health departments.

Her six-month contract will begin Thursday and will be extendable in three and six-month increments for an additional 18 months. However, the document includes a clause saying either party may sever the contract for any reason with 60 days notice, allowing the county to hire a full-time director at its convenience.

The hiring of a director was initially a power conferred upon the transitional La Plata County Board of Health, which was charged with overseeing the creation of the department. The new agency will become the governing public health body on the dissolution of San Juan Basin Public Health, which takes effect on Jan. 1, 2024.

In May, the BOCC voted to remove governing authority from the health board, putting its members in an advisory position – including with respect to the hiring of a director. At the time, the commissioners said they needed to instate a director quickly, and that scheduling challenges inhibited the BOH from doing so.

However, the process has been turbulent since then. After a national search, two finalists for the position were announced in June. But the selection of a candidate was paused after one of the finalists abruptly removed herself from consideration.

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The remaining candidate, SJBPH Interim Executive Director Tiffany Switzer, was not selected, and commissioners opted instead to keep looking. The county’s public health consultant, the Otowi Group, recommended that the BOCC hire Anselmo as a contractor, a recommendation seconded by the county’s health board.

“We’re really excited to have her on board and we are really lucky to have that caliber of person working in La Plata County,” BOCC Chairwoman Marsha Porter-Norton said after Tuesday’s vote.

Anselmo is likely to lead the nascent department through at least its first month in operation.

The transition comes at a time when public health is under scrutiny. The decision to dissolve SJBPH was informed by a political divide between Archuleta and La Plata counties that seeped into the public health realm. As the 75-year old department fades into history, Anselmo said her biggest challenge will be to build trust in the new department.

“The most important thing that we can do is be open to the public and really be transparent in our communications about how decisions are made,” she said.

In July, the La Plata County Board of Health voted 4-1 to recommend that the BOCC hire Anselmo. However, all the board members noted concerns that she was based out of the Front Range.

In an interview with The Durango Herald, Anselmo said she intends to “do what needs to be done.”

“Some weeks it may be five days a week, some weeks it may be one day a week … it really is dependent on what's going on and what is needed to be there,” she said.

The contract does not specify how many hours or days Anselmo must work in person. However, the agreement can be terminated with five days notice if Anselmo fails to fulfill the outlined obligations. She will be paid $70 per hour for her work.

With an interim director secured, the county is moving to fill other key public health positions. Given that Anselmo is a contractor serving in an interim capacity, she will not have the power to hire department employees.

In reference to the historical baggage – the dissolution, the bumpy hiring process and recent divisive report on emergency pay at SJBPH – Anselmo said her outsider status could serve her well.

“There is an advantage to having somebody come in and look at things from a different perspective and I certainly bring that to this position,” she said.


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