Local representatives are scrambling to understand their reasoning, as neither Carbon nor Emery Counties have discussed their decision-making process with the board, which is a body that sets the budget and policies for the health department.
On Sept. 20, Carbon County Commission unanimously passed a resolution to leave SEUHD by Dec. 31. Carbon’s legal counsel said the resolution could be withdrawn or nullified if agreements between the three counties are reached in the coming months.
Emery County commissioners will consider a similar resolution during a special meeting Sept. 28.
Jaylyn Hawks, Grand County Council chairperson and local board representative, said Carbon’s commissioners discussed their decision to withdraw in vague terms during their meeting Sept. 20.
“They tossed a lot of vague innuendo around and haven’t backed them up with any specifics that we can address,” Hawks said. “It’s a little bit offensive. I don’t know where this is coming from because I feel we have reasonable people on the board.”
The SEUHD consists of Carbon, Emery and Grand Counties. Its nine member board is made up of three representatives from each county — one elected official and two citizen members.
In addition to Hawks, Grand County’s representatives include local healthcare worker Sam Cunningham and former county council member Elizabeth Tubbs.
On Sept. 26 — six days after Carbon County passed their resolution to withdraw from the district by the end of the year — the board held a regular meeting.
Agenda items discussing Carbon’s resolution as well as the hiring search for a permanent health officer were tabled by a majority vote of the board.
“It’s kind of a moot point if two counties are leaving the health department to go over organizational items on the agenda,” said Carbon County Commissioner and board representative Jake Mellor.
Hawks told The Times-Independent that she had spent the “better part” of the past several days preparing for the meeting in order to discuss the resolution and the hiring of a new health officer.
When Mellor made the case to table those agenda items, Hawks said she was “disappointed.”
“I was pretty disappointed to have [Mellor] — with the Carbon County attorney — shut the conversation down,” Hawks said. “It seems like every move he has made in the last month or so has been calculated to control the conversation.”
According to Carbon County Attorney Christian Bryner, who also serves as legal counsel to the Board of Health, discussions regarding the future of the three counties will be held in October in a private session between the board’s three elected officials.
“That meeting is to have one representative or at least less than a quorum,” Bryner said.
When asked by The Times-Independent why these discussions are being taken out of the public sphere, Bryner said, “It’s not a decisional meeting, it’s a meeting to bounce ideas off each other.”
“It would be unworkable otherwise,” he added.
Casting the net...
According to Grand County’s representatives on the board, Carbon and Emery Counties have remained vague about the specific issues that have caused them to consider separating from SEUHD.
During their Sept. 20 meeting, Carbon County Commissioner Jae Potter called Grand County “prejudiced” and alleged that their representatives have a superior attitude.
And, in an email to The Times-Independent, Emery County Commissioner Lynn Sitterud stated, “Grand County has a different set of values than those from the other two counties.”
When contacted by The Times-Independent to clarify these statements, neither Potter nor Sitterud responded.
Although they remain uncertain as to why they are bearing the brunt of these allegations, Grand County’s board representatives feel they originated during the hiring process of a new health officer for the department.
After former health officer David Cunningham retired in March, the board appointed environmental health director Bradon Bradford to serve in the position for the interim.
At the close of their initial search, the board offered the position to a candidate who did not accept it, and was later found to be unqualified under state standards, according to representatives. The board later decided — with an 8-0 vote during an emergency meeting — to re-open the hiring process.
According to an email obtained by The Times-Independent, Mellor suggested to a department employee that a “minority” contingent of the board blocked Bradford, who was also in the running during the initial search, from obtaining the position permanently.
“What has become more and more apparent over this time is the drastic difference in culture that Grand County representatives exhibit versus those of Carbon and Emery counties,” Mellor wrote. “I personally believe that diversity is a good thing, but many feel that we can no longer be blocked at every turn by a minority county in making what should be an obvious decision as to one candidate who happens to be our only valid and eligible candidate who made it to the final interview stage.”
But Tubbs noted that the vote to re-open the hiring process was passed 8-0, with Mellor as the only representative not casting a vote. According to Tubbs, Mellor had attended the meeting by phone, but later left the phone call for “unclear reasons” during that particular vote.
Hawks said there were several issues the board wanted to address by re-opening the hiring process and broadening the original search. The board only advertised the position to local and state newspapers, she said, noting that it was not distributed within proper healthcare circles.
“I was concerned about the process, I don’t think we cast the net far and wide enough,” she said.
In an email to Carbon’s commissioners, Hawks said that Bradford “may be the best person and most qualified for the position, but we don’t know that at this point in time because of the inadequate search that was conducted.”
Shortly after his commissioners passed a resolution to leave the department by year’s end — Carbon County dentist Paul Martinez resigned from the Board of Health. He said the hiring process cast doubt over Carbon County’s intentions for the position.
“Carbon just wanted this one individual in. They went to the point of fraud in order to get him into this position. It’s an $110,000 a year position it’s not something to be taken lightly,” Martinez said. “It’s the public’s money. They need to be held to a higher standard.”
An uncertain future...
The Southeast Utah Health Department provides many programs to the tri-county area, including health education, environmental health services, and low-income medical services. School nurses, suicide prevention efforts, immunizations, and the Women, Infants, and Children program are all under the department’s purview.
In addition to state and federal funding, these services are made possible through local county contributions, which are population-based.
As the largest population in the health district, Carbon County contributes the most to the department’s budget, totaling $128,891 in 2017.
With roughly similar populations, Emery County contributed $95,535 to the department’s budget in 2017 and Grand County contributed $77,364.
Tubbs said a departure of Carbon and Emery from the health department would be a “very disruptive action” with regard to funding streams.
“We are three small counties. We do better as a group,” Tubbs said. “We can provide better services, and maximize the dollars that are put into public health. None of us are big enough to support all of the services that are required, particularly the administrative overhead, separately.”
Dr. Joseph Miner is the executive director of the Utah Department of Health. Like Tubbs, Miner told The Times-Independent that the funding of public health services would be under question if Carbon and Emery chose to leave, similar to when San Juan County left the SEUHD in 2014.
“I encouraged them to work things out because it is disruptive to the funding of Public Health services throughout the State and especially in rural and frontier counties with small populations. The combining of resources among several counties helps the counties better provide public health services,” Miner said. “These multi-county health departments were established over 40 years ago and have all remained intact until San Juan County broke away. And it would get worse if others did the same.”
After the Sept. 26 board meeting, Mellor told The Times-Independent that he believes the best outcome for the three counties would be to “stick together” and “be good partners in regards to public health.”
But how they will get there, he said, remains to be determined.
“Maybe all the faces on the board will change — there’s a lot of ideas out there,” he said.
Although Hawks said she also wants the counties to stay together, if Carbon and Emery choose to leave she — and others — will rise to the challenge.
“I am prepared to do the intense work of building a well-equipped department for the citizens of Grand County,” she said. “I think we’d have to do a lot of creative out of the box thinking, but I think Grand County is up to it if Carbon County ties our hands by following through with their threat to withdraw from the district.”
Contact information for the board of health can be found by emailing or calling public information officer Becky Colombo at firstname.lastname@example.org or 435-637-3671.