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La Plata County commissioners to take over hiring of public health director

Board of Health to act in advisory capacity through the end of 2023
Teresa Wright, a member of the La Plata County Board of Health, offers public comment Tuesday at the County Administration Building as commissioners considered whether to take over the duty of hiring the public health director. (Reuben Schafir/Durango Herald)

La Plata County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to take over hiring of a public health director, leaving the Board of Health in an advisory capacity through the end of the year.

The Board of Health is a transitional entity as San Juan Basin Public Health dissolves. When the dissolution goes into effect on Dec. 31, La Plata County Public Health must be operational and prepared to take over all public health services.

County commissioners appointed seven people to the Board of Health in January. At the board’s second meeting on Feb. 23, the county’s human resources director told the members that the most important decision they had to make was to find a director.

Now, county officials say they have discovered that leaving this task to the board is impractical, given scheduling challenges with seven members.

“We had a timeline wherein we were going to do initial review of the first round of applications and we had to adjust that timeline purely because of scheduling,” County Manager Chuck Stevens told county commissioners on Tuesday. “It became apparent to staff that maybe we needed to shift and adjust our approach.”

The struggle, officials say, has not just been to get a qualified public health director in place quickly. The desire to maintain distance between the Board of Health and SJBPH officials who may be applying for that position has meant that the two entities have had no contact since the board was first assembled over three months ago.

This has been the source of anxiety and discontent among SJBPH officials, the county learned on April 27. At a meeting of the San Juan Basin Public Health’s governing board, on which Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton sits, the agency’s staff reported a desperate need to be involved with the development of the county’s new health department.

SJBPH staff have been shut out of the process, Stevens said, in order to maintain fair hiring practices and avoid any whiff of favoritism benefiting SJBPH employees as the county hires staff for its new department. The SJBPH director Liane Jollon has applied for the director position with the county.

Only one member of the Board of Health – Teresa Wright – attended Tuesday’s meeting in person. She read a prepared statement to commissioners, lamenting the fact that she was notified of the change fewer than 24 hours prior to Thursday’s Board of Health meeting. The topic was not discussed at that meeting.

Wright told commissioners that the Board of Health and SJBPH officials have been kept unnecessarily segregated given that board members are familiar with and attuned to fair hiring practices.

Commissioner Porter-Norton responded to Wright’s comment from the dais – an unusual occurrence – stating that the distance between SJBPH and the Board of Health was necessary due to the county’s need to conduct “legally defensible” hiring practices.

In his comments before the vote, Commissioner Matt Salka indicated that the impending deadline – Jan. 1, 2024 – by which the county must have a functional department is the driving factor, not any judgment on the performance of the board.

“The concern is that we have seven months left,” he said.

But, in a part of her statement she submitted to the record but could not deliver verbally because of time constraints, Wright seemed to expect and push back against that notion.

“Some of this is understandable for ‘efficiency,’ but efficient practices should never diminish the mantra of this county, that being ‘AIR’ – accountability, integrity, and respect,” her statement read.


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