Log In

Reset Password
News Education Local News Nation & World New Mexico

La Plata County likely to seize control over hiring for public health district

Resolution would ‘clarify’ duties of new board, giving it ‘advisory’ powers
Pending approval of a resolution by county commissioners, the La Plata County Board of Health is likely to have only advisory powers through the end of the year. (Reuben Schafir/Durango Herald file)

A resolution set to go before La Plata County commissioners on Tuesday would “clarify” the duties of the county’s newly created board of health.

The clarification would strip the La Plata County Board of Health of its responsibility to hire a public health director and place the board in an advisory role with respect to hiring public health officials. Hiring powers would instead be retained by county commissioners.

In January, the Board of County Commissioners appointed seven people to the Board of Health to act in a transitional capacity to prepare the county for the dissolution of San Juan Basin Public Health. Commissioners initially gave the board responsibility for hiring employees, including a public health director, and securing property, contracts and leases for the new department.

If the amendment is approved Tuesday, the Board of Health would advise commissioners on those matters. The amendment would also take steps to shrink the board from seven to five members, although that would occur as members’ terms naturally end.

When the dissolution of SJBPH goes into effect, the Board of Health would still become the governing body over the new department. Under state statute, La Plata County Public Health must be operational on Jan. 1, 2024, when SJBPH officially dissolves.

County Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton, who sits on the SJBPH board, said the reallocation of duties, if approved, would have two major positive effects.

First, she said, it would lubricate the decision-making process with respect to hiring and other decisions.

“It has become really important for us to be more nimble and more efficient with resources,” Porter-Norton said. “Scheduling with seven people (the Board of Health) has been challenging.”

The impact of scheduling challenges has been magnified by the cumbersome process of getting seven people up to speed on the task before them. With the shift in responsibility, the three county commissioners would hire the director, rather than the seven-member board.

The county has held three-hour biweekly meetings to get the group of health care professionals and policy experts on the same page. The group has heard numerous presentations by the Otowi Group, a consultant hired by the county to assist in the transition.

However, to mitigate the possibility of a lawsuit over unfair hiring practices, county officials have kept the new board siloed from the current public health officials at SJBPH who might be applicants for jobs at the new department.

Liane Jollon, executive director of SJBPH, has applied for the director position with the county. Jollon is also a finalist for an executive director position with the Health District of Northern Larimer County.

This, Porter-Norton said, is the second reason for the move. By giving hiring power to county commissioners, the board of health can learn about public health programs directly from SJBPH employees. It also fulfills a recent request from SJBPH employees, who told the SJBPH board that they wished to communicate their knowledge and expertise to the new departments in Archuleta and La Plata counties.

With respect to fair hiring practices, the move still raises some questions.

County commissioners meet with SJBPH officials biweekly to receive briefings on the department’s work. Porter-Norton indicated that those meetings will continue to take place, although some scheduling changes may be necessary.

When asked if that could create its own perceived or real bias with respect to SJBPH staff who may now be considered by commissioners for a role at the county department, she said the commissioners would “need to be careful about that just like we asked the board of health to be careful about it.”

The effort to clarify duties of the health board also reopens the issue of how public health is mixed with politics. The entire rationale for the SJBPH dissolution stemmed from a difference in political perspectives on the role of public health agencies in the two counties that fall under the department’s jurisdiction. Commissioners from La Plata and Archuleta counties sit on the SJBPH board, but no elected officials sit on La Plata County’s newly created Board of Health.

In November, Porter-Norton spoke highly of removing county commissioners from overseeing public health decisions.

“One of the things that occurred in the pandemic is a realization that sometimes you can mix the goals of elected officials – some people would call that political goals or ideological goals – with public health, and it is our opinion that that isn’t the greatest way to go,” she said at the time.

Porter-Norton stressed that the appointed Board of Health members would still be in charge of assembling the array of programs and services offered by the new department – something, she said, they will be better equipped to do with more information from the existing public health officials.

Members of the Board of Health seemed hesitant to discuss the move. Several did not respond to requests for comment Friday, and those who did were guarded in their comments. Board members were notified of the likely restructuring earlier in the week, but it was not discussed at their Tuesday meeting.

Michael Murphy, a managing principal at the consulting firm Durango Health Partners and former interim CEO of Centura Mercy Regional Medical Center, is the board’s vice president. (Reuben Schafir/Durango Herald file)

“It was really an effort, from what I understand, to try to really divide up some of the work a little bit more efficiently so that we could really get into the programming and allow the Board of Health to be able to really focus on the key programs to be developed going forward,” said the board’s Vice Chairman Michael Murphy.

He declined to comment on how it felt to have the board’s role changed so suddenly.

Teresa Wright is a registered nurse who holds a master’s degree in public health and is serving a three-year term on the board. (Reuben Schafir/Durango Herald file)

Board member Teresa Wright, stressing that her relatively recent arrival to the community might leave some knowledge gaps, said she was mostly curious to learn more.

“It’s something that comes without a lot of explanation to me as a Board of Health member,” she said.

The BOCC will consider the restructuring at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the La Plata County Administration Building.


Reader Comments