LAGRANGE — The question of who will serve as the next health officer for LaGrange County remains in the air after Thursday night’s meeting of the members of the health board, where they acknowledged they still don’t know why the commissioners voted to reject their appointee.
The board, which oversees the operation of the LaGrange County Health Department, voted in October to reappoint Dr. Tony Pechin to another four-year term as health officer, but his appointment was derailed when the commissioners exercised their right recently granted by a change in state law to deny that appointment.
The health board members ultimately voted to request a meeting with the commissioners to discuss why they chose to deny Dr. Tony Pechin another term as LaGrange County Health Officer. The board is requesting the commissioners sit down with them in an executive session.
In October, the health board voted to appoint Pechin to another four-year term as the county health officer. Pechin has served in that role since 2000. But because of a 2021 change in state law, the commissioners were granted the final authority for that appointment, and at their Nov. 21 meeting, they caught the health board by surprise voting to deny Pechin another term. The commissioners also offered little explanation as to why.
During that November meeting, Commissioner Kevin Myers, who made the motion to deny Pechin another term, said he thought it was time for a change. After the meeting, Myers would only say that as health officer, Pechin made some decisions that “did not meet with our approval,” but opted not to elaborate on what those decisions were.
By law, the county health officer must be a licensed physician. He or she acts as the chief executive of the health department, responsible for hiring the department’s staff, and overseeing all programs conducted by the staff, such as the WIC program and other public health campaigns. The health officer also has the authority to condemn properties when they are deemed uninhabitable and unsafe.
Pechin and the health department, through the health department’s attorney, served the Michiana Events Center in Shipshewana with the emergency order to close in early 2021, saying the Shipshewana business had repeatedly violated the governor’s emergency pandemic orders limiting crowds at events to 25 people or fewer. Those orders also required the MEC to require patrons to wear face coverings and practice social distancing, something the order said the Shipshewana business was not enforcing.
Health board members met for the first time two weeks ago to discuss the commissioner’s denial of the health officer and, at that meeting, opted to reach out to the handful of people in the county qualified to hold the health officer’s job. They mailed and or emailed each person identified.
Only two doctors responded, one by way of an automatic email read-receipt notice but without comment, and a second, a short response from another physician saying if the commissioners weren’t willing to support the decision of the members of the board of health, he had no interest in the position.
Several different board members said they had recent phone conversations with Commissioner Terry Martin, president of the LaGrange County Board of Commissioners.
Board member Matt Grossman said he spoke to Martin. He called that conversation “open” and said Martin told him “certain actions during COVID were only a small part of his concern” about Pechin. Grossman then said Martin told him the commissioner’s biggest concern was how the health department was being operated.
Pechin, who did not attend last night’s meeting, was available by phone if needed. Pechin told board members two weeks ago that at no time during his last term as health officer, which included the COVID pandemic, did any of the commissioners reach out to him to express any concerns. Pechin did make an appearance before the commissioners in December of 2020 and informed them his office would be more aggressive in enforcing pandemics restrictions, including mask-wearing, at businesses and organizations not abiding the state regulations.
Health board President Cindy Swihart and board member Joe Billman also said they spoke with Martin. Billman said his conversation with Martin mirrored that of Grossman. Billman added he came away from that conversation believing Martin simply felt that it was “time to stir the pot a little bit and get some new blood in here.”
Swihart described her conversation with Martin as “unhelpful.”
Swihart said the board needed to request a formal meeting with the commissioners “to de-escalate” the apparent tension between the two.
“I had hoped that they could sit down with us and try to work this out,” she said. “And if there is a change in the health officer, that could be accomplished in a very organized way.”
Retired LaGrange Dentist Dr. Jeffery Bassett admitted to being blindsided by the commissioners’ move.
“I was disappointed this happened, this situation,” he said. “We were kind of caught off guard. If we would have known any of this before, we could have taken care of it, or had some discussion with Dr. Pechin. But there again, they (the commissioners) kind of blindsided us.”
Swihart said the impasse threatens to jeopardize the day-to-day work done by the health department.
“It would be well for them to let us know if there’s an issue. We’d like to know about that,” Bassett added.
Commissioner Peter Cook, who acts as the commissioners’ liaison to the board of health, attended Thursday’s meeting. Cook said he believes issues with complaints about sewers inspections and issues with the way a condemnation of a Wolcottville apartment complex was handled raised the eyebrows of his fellow commissioners. Cook added, however, that he thought both those issues had been largely resolved.
“It’s a work in progress,” he told the health board members.
Cook went on to suggest there had likely been some sort of a communication breakdown between the commissioners and the health department.
“They probably have told you more than they’ve told me,” he said of any recent conversations with the two other commissioners. “The one thing I have been told is ‘I don’t want to say on record’ because they don’t want to say anything that looks bad.”
The board’s attorney, Tony Mann, told the board members that the board needs to make a request to set up a meeting with the commissioners, but it would be up to the commissioners to decide whether or not they want it to happen. Mann then suggested that Cook speaks with the two other commissioners at Monday’s regular Commissioner’s meeting.
Pechin’s term expires at the end of the year, but Pechin told the board at their last meeting he was willing to stay on until the issues are resolved or a replacement is named. It’s unlikely this will be resolved by the end of the year. The next scheduled board of health meeting is not until the second week of January.