Mesa County Public Health Department (MCPHD) Director Dr. Jeff Kuhr has been under attack by the Mesa County Commissioners, who for some reason have been working for months to generate credible reasons to fire him. Commissioner Janet Rowland in particular has targeted Kuhr, accusing him of financial impropriety and grievous errors in MCPHD’s procurement processes. The Commissioners have ordered the Mesa County Board of Public Health to fire Kuhr, but they refused, saying there is no actual evidence that he’s intentionally done anything wrong. Not only that, but the State of Colorado rates MCPHD as having the lowest possible financial risk (pdf) in its compliance with federal and state contracts, making it clear that the state trusts MCPHD, but our right wing commissioners don’t. (This financial risk rating is done every three years, but the state skipped it during the pandemic. The MCPHD is currently undergoing this analysis again.)
And the Commissioners appear to be winning their battle to force Kuhr out.
The entire Mesa County Board of Health resigned today, caving to the political pressure the Commissioners have put on them for months to fire Dr. Kuhr, with little actual reason to justify it.
We can only wonder what the real reasons are for the Commissioners’ attack on Kuhr.
He was hired in 2011 to rebuild MCPHD and by all measures has done a good job, growing the agency, making sure Mesa County residents stay safe when patronizing restaurants, child care centers, tattoo parlors and public pools, policing air pollution and assuring the agency is overall effective and fiscally responsible.
But it’s no secret that Rowland has been an ardent enemy of public health, decrying the things MCPHD needed to promote during the pandemic to protect public safety, like social distancing, masking and vaccinations.
During her 2020 campaign for county commissioner and before Covid vaccines were available, Rowland fought Covid-19 precautions and pumped out disinformation about Coronavirus that was linked to QAnon. Her social media posts claimed Covid-19 was no more deadly than the flu. She agitated against physical distancing and the temporary shutdown of non-essential businesses, the only tools available to society at the time to limit the spread of what was then a highly communicable and often deadly virus. Rowland promoted Alex Jones’ “InfoWars” conspiracy theory that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control was intentionally inflating the number of Covid deaths, claiming hospitals got more funding if people died of Covid.
It all showed how out of touch Rowland was with what was going on and what had to be done to stem the spread of the virus. And it was dangerous.
Her actions and statements during her campaign alone might explain Rowland’s extraordinary hostility towards Jeff Kuhr and the Mesa County Public Health Department, but when you add that the Health Department also offers reproductive health services, like condoms and birth control and stigma-free treatment for sexually-transmitted diseases, it’s easy to see how conservatives could take an interest in dismantling the agency and imposing their own preferences on it.
To try to prove Kuhr had willfully engaged in wrongdoing, the Commissioners did a financial audit of MCPHD’s use of County purchasing cards, or “P-cards.” They audit found Kuhr used “P-Cards” to buy about $219 worth of alcohol at after-work meetings that he held to connect with his staff. The purchase violated the rules, which gave the commissioners something to jump on. Kuhr admitted he made a mistake by purchasing the alcohol for his staff and paid all the money back, but that didn’t satisfy the commissioners.
In a February 13, 2023 article in the Daily Sentinel, Rowland said buying alcohol with taxpayer dollars was “a very good reason” to fire Kuhr, but after she gave the audit to District Attorney Dan Rubinstein in hopes he would press criminal charges against Kuhr, the D.A. instead advised the County not to press charges. Rowland then changed her tune, and started a new tactic: accusing Kuhr of bigger financial wrongdoing.
The County paid for another audit at a cost to taxpayers of $49,000.
This audit revealed that Kuhr had approved an ongoing consulting contract with a grant writer named Roxane White, and paid her $120,000/year for four years, for a total of $480,000.
About this Kuhr says, “In my experience with [Roxane White], there was no better person for making connections and getting funds.”
Kuhr was right.
White’s fundraising efforts for MCPHD paid off, producing around $6 million for the health department, $4.5 million in new market tax credits (a federal financial program to stimulate business and investment in low income communities, which has stimulated $8 of private investment for every $1 of federal funding supplied) and another $1.5 million in grants to fund Mesa County’s new Clifton Campus.
Rowland’s complaint was that Kuhr had awarded White the contracts without going through a competitive bidding process. But Kuhr says his Board would likely have awarded the contract to White anyway, even if there had been a bidding process, because of her knowledge, background, connections and proven skill at bringing in money.
Rowland might have taken exception to White because White was formerly Chief of Staff to Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat. This might have been unpalatable to our current right wing board of County Commissioners.
This is one of the reasons why public health departments are completely separate entities from the county administration, with their own separate boards, funding mechanisms, leadership and decision-making structures: to insulate them from politicians who want to interfere.
About the Roxane White contracts, Kuhr said, “I was not going to renew our second or third contract with Roxane, but [then-County Commissioner] Rose [Pugliese] suggested I should. Cool, calm waters with one set of commissioners turns into a tsunami with another set.”
Rowland also took exception to a $20,000 grant MCPHD made to the Grand Junction Economic Partnership (GJEP), saying the grant had “no deliverables.”
Kuhr laments that the County Commissioners don’t understand that “deliverables” in public health are often less tangible and more apparent down the line, seen in improved lives, opportunities and overall health for County residents, through things like increased economic opportunity, healthier lifestyles, better wages, prevention of injury, and other things that are hard to measure.
Kuhr explained the donation by saying,
“GJEP totally addresses the social determinants of health, and when I contribute to them, I get to weigh in on what they’re working on. I’m all about investing in local organizations and then using my team to help them succeed. Curtis [Englehart] asked if we’d donate. … It was very similar to the $10,000 per year that we donated to the Grand Junction Sports Commission, which was at the request of Scott McInnis. GJEP funds its operations from donations. Through their business recruitment and expansion in Mesa County, they focus on increasing our average annual wage. We’re also working with them to create more opportunities such as apprenticeships and technical training, so that we get more of our graduating seniors to have a ‘what’s next’ plan. Only about 50% of our graduates have some sort of career in mind. My health department focuses on the social determinants of health; economic stability is one of those determinants. Whenever we can partner with someone and enlighten them on the value of public health in their sector, it’s a win. Every industry has some sort of public health role.”
Kuhr laments that the County Commissioners don’t really get how public health works.
Here’s a list of what Dr. Kuhr has faced from the County Commissioners since last September, as the Commissioners have struggled to generate reasons to remove him:
- Forensic Investigation;
- District Attorney Investigation;
- Commissioners went to the Daily Sentinel’s Editorial Board asking them to write about Kuhr’s financial wrongdoing. Janet handed them an copy of forensic audit report.
- The Daily Sentinel published an article February 12, featuring the DA investigation the following Sunday, defaming Kuhr.
- Janet Rowland dug up all exit interviews that mentioned Kuhr since 2014 and gave them to the Board of Health, so they could see negative comments about him;
- Janet Rowland asked MCPHD Board President, Will Hays, to allow former employees to talk to him about Kuhr;
- The Commissioners cut in half the amount of money they contribute to MCPHD;
- The Commissioners told the Board of Health they will not enter into any sort of intergovernmental agreement until KUHR is gone;
- Rowland solicited negative comments about Kuhr from former employees;
- Rowland then sent the negative comments to the Board of Health and demanded they tell her how they’re going to address it;
- Rowland has been making the continuous claim that Kuhr intentionally lost receipts for alcohol purchases.
The list makes it clear the Commissioners’ attack on Kuhr is about far more than Kuhr not going through the proper procurement processes or misusing P-cards.
Kuhr admits he has had some confusion about how the health department has awarded contracts. He also admits to having made procedural errors in how the health department has awarded contracts and used purchasing cards, and is willing to rectify that. These are mistakes anyone could have made, since there are a lot of complicated policies and procedures guiding these activities.
The Commissioners even adopted a Plan of Action, most recently revised on May 12, aimed at improving the procurement process at MCHD, but it appears they are in so much of a hurry to push Kuhr out the door, they won’t even consider giving Kuhr and MCPHD a chance to implement it.
On Monday, May 22, the County Commissioners plan to hold a hearing at which they are expected to pick all new members to sit on of the Board of Health, and thus seize control over the Mesa County Public Health Department and lead to Kuhr’s firing unless something happens to stop this sad and desperate move.
|County Commissioner, District 1||Cody Davisfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|County Commissioner, District 2||Bobbie Danielemail@example.com|
|County Commissioner, District 3||Janet Rowlandfirstname.lastname@example.org|