Mesa County Commissioner Janet Rowland succeeded in imposing her political will on the Mesa County Public Health Department yesterday after appointing two final conservative members to the Mesa County Board of Public Health (BOH).
Health Department employees point out Rowland made all the new appointments to the Board of Health without consulting a single person at the Health Department.
“The fact that they keep appointing people to our Board that so clearly do not support the work that we do feels like a spit in the face every time,” one employee said.
It’s also important to note that Rowland’s months-long crusade to seize control of the Health Department was also likely illegal.
In a May 16, 2023 letter (pdf), Mesa County Attorney Todd Starr informed David Skanga, the attorney for the Board of Health, that the Mesa County Commissioners intended to fire the entire Board of Health for refusing to give in to Rowland’s persistent demand that they fire Health Department Director Jeff Kuhr.
Rowland had been searching for a way to oust Kuhr for months, but was not able to find any evidence of serious wrongdoing, while Rowland and Starr themselves were found to have made questionable purchases on their own county credit cards, as they had charged Kuhr with doing.
Todd wrote to Skanga,
“Please be advised that the Board of County Commissioners for Mesa County (“BOCC”) intends to convene a special meeting at 3:00 PM on Monday, May 25, 2023 to consider the removal of Will Hays, Errol Snider, Gretchen Gore and Deborah Monaghan from the Mesa County Board of Public Health (BOH”).”
Of course that meant the four BOH members would in fact be fired, and the proposed public hearing was just going to be a dog-and-pony show with a predetermined outcome.
But in Colorado, County Commissioners don’t have the legal authority to fire members of Boards of Health, so it was unethical for Starr to even make the threat on behalf of the commissioners.
A 1989 Advisory Opinion by the Colorado state Attorney General (pdf) states that while county commissioners can appoint members to Boards of Health (BOH), they have no legal authority to remove them.
This legal structure was put in place to insulate Public Health Departments from the ideological whims and religious proclivities of politicians, who would seek to dominate health departments if given the chance, the very thing we see happening now in Mesa County.
Public health departments can only succeed in their mission to improve public health when they are free to follow the science to achieve data-driven outcomes, instead of being guided by political and religious ideology.
Unfortunately, the four targeted BOH members all resigned en masse to protest the threat to fire them, instead of digging in and fighting the BOCC by bringing an expensive lawsuit that could have dragged on for years.
The mass resignation gave Rowland the opening she craved to stock the new Board of Health with her personal friends and those who share her political and religious ideology, which she has promptly done.
Rowland had herself put on the Board of Health earlier this year as well. She has no education in public health or any related field. Her college degree is in Biblical Literature, which bodes poorly for public health since religious people often have misguided and destructive views of science, and see science as a threat to their faith. This was borne out early in the pandemic in 2020, when Rowland ran for Commissioner and there were no tools yet to fight the virus — no testing, no vaccines, no treatment, no means of prevention, and it was spreading through the country like wildfire with a rising death rate. Yet despite this, Rowland used her platform as a candidate to agitate against public health measures aimed a reducing spread of the Coronavirus, like masking and social distancing, and promote conspiracy theories and disinformation linked to Alex Jones’ Infowars and QAnon, for example posting on her Facebook page the nonsensical idea that hospitals got paid more to list “Covid” as the cause of death on their death certificates. (Hospitals get paid for treating people, not for what is written on death certificates.)
Given Rowland’s strong past anti-public health stances, her sitting on the BOH and her influence over her friends and like-minded fellow appointees will have dangerous ramifications for Mesa County residents as time goes on.
Only three possible scenarios could have led to the mess we’re in now with the Rowland Board of Health:
Given Colorado law, there are only three ways in which the Commissioners could possibly have felt empowered to fire Hays, Snider, Gore and Monaghan:
1) Todd Starr and the commissioners all knew that commissioners have no legal authority in Colorado to fire members of Boards of Health, and they all intended to knowingly break the law and do it anyway, which would have been illegal, or,
2) Todd Starr knew the commissioners lacked legal authority to fire members of the Board of Health but didn’t tell them, and wrote the letter threatening to fire them anyway to save his job, which would have been unethical,
3) Todd Starr is one really terrible county attorney who didn’t know the commissioners lacked the legal authority to fire Board of Health members, and he went ahead and gave the commissioners the erroneous advice that they could legally go ahead and do it, which likely would have been malpractice.
All of the above scenarios erode confidence in the ability of the Mesa County Commissioners and their attorney to govern, and all detrimental to the Mesa County Public Health Department.