Public health director dismissed; board of health seeks understanding

More than two weeks after Judy Edwards, who was the Madison County Public Health director, was dismissed by the Madison County Board of Commissioners, members of the Madison County Board of Health are still waiting for what they deem as an acceptable explanation as to why she was let go without their input.

“With all boards, it is appropriate to say that it is a courtesy to keep them involved in employee issues. We like to keep them informed as well as we can and vice versa, but when it comes to employee issues, we have to do what is lawfully appropriate considering involvement of the county attorney, human resources and MACO legal,” commissioner Jim Hart said.

The board of health held a special meeting in Ennis on July 10. The discussion focused on clarifying the board’s role and responsibilities, as well as possible re-staffing and restructuring of the public health office.

Hart, commissioner chairman, told members of the board of health that it is an advisory board to the commissioners like a few other boards in the county. He added that the commissioners handle personnel matters for about 240 employees in the county, while the board of health is not required to be involved in or give approval for such matters.

Not satisfied with that answer, board of health chairman Doug Young and board members proposed drafting a letter to the county attorney for clarification and a legal opinion regarding Montana Code Annotated referring to county boards and, more specifically, boards of health. Young said the medical responsibilities and decisions the board is charged with make it different from other boards.

“The board of health has made a request to the county attorney for a more layman’s version of statute regarding what the public health board’s responsibilities are.  I’m hopeful that the county attorney can do that for them,” Hart said.

According to Montana Code Annotated, each local board of health shall appoint and fix the salary of a local health officer, elect a presiding officer and other necessary officers, employ qualified staff, adopt bylaws to govern meetings, hold regular meetings at least quarterly and special meetings as necessary and identify, assess, prevent and enhance conditions of public-health importance.

“With a legal opinion there will be no ambiguity out there, even if we don’t like the answer,” board member Fred Hofman said.

Board of health member R.D. Marks vocalized his indecision of remaining on the board if it held no authority or was not involved in decision-making. Young added that he felt insulted when he learned of the action the commissioners took. He said he believed there was a good, open line of communication between the commissioners and board of health.

Hart would not elaborate on Edwards’ dismissal. He simply said that he could not divulge the information in a public forum and that it was not appropriate to do so without Edwards present. She was hired in January and dismissed late last month.

In the meantime, without a director, the public health office will continue to provide services and billing with one part-time and one full-time employee. Public health nurse Christine Durham said she and clerk Tammy Mahlstede couldn’t handle the entire office by themselves, especially during the office’s busy time of the year that is approaching. She said this time of year is usually quiet, but they are doing a lot more work short-staffed, including finishing up a number of grant applications.

Staffing of the office may change again come May 2014, when Durham can possibly retire. The board suggested Durham and Mahlstede develop different ideas and scenarios of how to keep the office running no matter who staffs it or holds the title of director.

“We can revamp and make the department strong and better,” board member Maria Bartoletti said.

The next board of health meeting is scheduled for August 1, at 4 p.m. at the public health office in Virginia City.

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