Op Ed 551

The Flathead County Health Officer Selection Debacle

It has been two years since the Flathead County Health Board started its search for a replacement health officer and based on actions from the board and recommendations from outside recruiting firms, the board will not be making a permanent selection until 2023.

The Flathead County Health Department has been seeking a Health Officer for the past two years.  After the resignation of Hillary Hanson in June of 2020, the position has only been filled on a temporary basis briefly by Tamalee Robinson, then long-term by Joe Russell, who held the role before retiring in 2017.  The health department’s entire hiring process has been wrought with confusion, inconsistency, and lack of transparency, not to mention a waste of taxpayer money.

The health board in Flathead County is not adhering to Montana Code in their hiring procedures by choosing the members of the selection committee outside the normal decision-making process of the full board. MCA 2-3-201 states “public boards… in this state exist to aid in the conduct of the peoples’ business…Toward these ends, the provisions of the part shall be liberally construed.”  Liberally construed means “in favor of openness.”  I would submit that this statute has been violated by the health board, most particularly with the self-appointed “committee” that reviews all candidates without any oversight by either the entire board or the public.

This self-appointed committee is comprised of Flathead County Commissioner Pam Holmquist, Columbia Falls Mayor Don Barnhart, and health board members Ronalee Skees and Jessica Mahlberg-Fiftal.  Who selected these committee members?  The only qualified person on this committee to select one of the most important health department positions in the Flathead is Mahlberg-Fiftal, who holds a master’s degree in public health.  Why were health board members Dr. Bukacek and Dr. Heyboer not selected for this committee? Once a candidate is selected by the committee and approved by the entire health board, the county commissioners then make the final hiring decision.  Is Commissioner Holmquist’s presence on this committee not a conflict of interest or rubber stamp of approval?

Not only have the applicants and candidates not been made available to the public, they have not even been made available to the entire health board, as health board member Dr. Annie Bukacek pointed out during a meeting in the following video clip:

March 17th, 2022 meeting of the Flathead County Health Board.

“It was entirely taken care of through a very small personnel committee and the rest of us never saw it,” said Bukacek. “This is not proper. The rest of the health board never got to see those resumes. Not one.”

As Dr. Bukacek noted, the health officer candidate committee is not even sharing information about or seeking approval of candidates with the larger board prior to making recommendations to the county commissioners.  MCA 2-3-203 states “All meetings of public or governmental bodies, boards, bureaus, commissions, agencies of the state, or any political subdivision of the state or organizations or agencies supported in whole or in part by public funds or expending public funds, including the supreme court, must be open to the public.” 

In the same video clip, it is noteworthy that Commissioner Holmquist spells out the procedure that is supposed to be followed saying, “The personnel committee will make a recommendation, then those individuals will go to the health board…you guys look at whoever is in the pool. You make a recommendation to the commissioners, and then the commissioners have the final say.”  It is ironic that this committee, which includes Commissioner Holmquist, does not even follow their own procedures.  

As I have reported previously, it is not only difficult when applicants cannot even get past the “gatekeepers” and receive a fair hearing, but it is also difficult to find local qualified candidates when the positions are not even consistently posted on the health department’s website. According to records obtained from the Flathead County commissioner’s office, at least two expensive recruiting firms were hired to search for Flathead County’s new Health Officer.  The current firm, Prothman, located near Seattle, was paid $17,500 plus expenses.  Is a person from some big city from who-knows-where really going to be the best choice to represent the health needs of Flathead County? Meanwhile Flathead County Commissioner Pam Holmquist, who also serves on the health board, is running for re-election with one of her consistent claims being her “fiscal responsibility.”

During the health board meeting on March 17, 2022, Holmquist gave a brief update on the health officer interviews and stated there were eight candidates.  There is no public record whatsoever about these applicants, their qualifications, why they were selected, and no citizens were allowed in any of the interviews.  Suddenly, a month later, there is only a single candidate for the health board to review:  Michael Chambers from the Macon County Health Department in Missouri. Mr. Chambers, the only one presented to the health board by the selection committee, was unqualified by their own criteria and the board voted not to recommend him for the position.  This committee rejected at least two local qualified candidates, spent (wasted) thousands of taxpayer dollars on at least 2 recruiting firms, flew in the lone candidate at taxpayer expense and then torpedoed their own candidate.

A special Flathead County Personnel Committee meeting was held on May 24, 2022 to discuss options regarding finding a replacement for Joe Russell, whose contract is expiring on June 30th. In less than 7 minutes, it was decided that Jennifer Rankowsky, an internal health department employee, would be considered as an interim health officer before the full board in one week. Other than gushing praise from committee members saying that “no one could be better for the job,” nothing was shared about what her current position is or what her alleged qualifications are.

Commissioner Holmquist was notably missing from the follow-up meeting of the full board to discuss the interim appointment on June 2nd, and nothing has been mentioned thus far about replacing Dr. Annie Bukacek after her resignation in March. The archived meeting video with a duration of about 25 minutes, has extremely poor sound quality and the video setup makes it impossible to actually see who is speaking. A citizen watching this would have great difficulty trying to decipher what actually took place. Once again, Ms. Rankowsky is discussed, but nothing is said about her qualifications, other than Joe Russell’s assertion that “she meets the statutory requirements.” It was also noted that Ms. Rankowsky has no interest in permanently filling the position.

Again, Prothman will be recruiting for the position, but recommended that the board wait until after the first of the year to start searching again and the board is apparently following this advice without questioning it. It was decided that the board would recommend Rankowsky as the interim health officer to the county commissioners and that she could fill this role for up to one year. Russell’s main concern was the board referring to Rankowsky as “interim,” which would “dilute the role of the health officer.” Whatever that means.

Two years have passed and the health board and county commissioners have been unable to fill the role of Flathead County Health Officer, yet a proposed interim health officer can be chosen to fulfill this important role in the span of about 30 minutes.  And more taxpayer money will be wasted in waiting another 6 months to start searching for new candidates, apparently with no intention of looking at local candidates.

The past two years have been a medical version of Einstein’s quote on insanity. Word is already reaching us that the next “plandemic” will apparently be some version of small pox.  The citizens of Flathead County need local leadership and a health officer who will stand in the gap for our liberties, our health and for medical choice.  Flathead County needs leadership and a health officer with common sense, a solid foundation in real health and a strong backbone, not more of the business as usual that we have endured. 

We need to get back to actively recruiting in our local community and engaging candidates in a fair, straightforward and open process, following the procedures spelled out in black and white.  What we do not need are self-appointed and self-serving committees of politicos or more wasted time and taxpayer dollars.

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By Julie Martin

Julie Martin, RN, BSN, ACN has been a Registered Nurse for over 32 years. She graduated from Cedarville University with a Bachelor's of Science in Nursing degree. She also has an Applied Clinical Nutrition certification from Texas Chiropractic College. She enjoys writing, working with her clients and the privilege of living in Montana.
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