LAGRANGE – The question of who will serve as the next health officer for LaGrange County remains up in the air after Thursday night’s meeting of health board members, where they admitted they still don’t know why commissioners voted to reject their nominee.
The board, which oversees the operation of the LaGrange County Health Department, voted in October to re-appoint Dr. Tony Pechin for another four-year term as health officer, but his appointment was scuttled when commissioners exercised their right recently granted by a change in state law to deny that appointment.
Health board members ultimately voted to request a meeting with commissioners to discuss why they chose to deny Dr. Tony Pechin another term as LaGrange County Health Officer. The board is asking the commissioners to sit down with them in an executive session.
In October, the health board voted to appoint Pechin to another four-year term as county health officer. Pechin has served in that role since 2000. But due to a change in state law in 2021, commissioners were given final authority over that appointment, and at their Nov. 21 meeting, they caught the health board by surprise by voting to deny Pechin another deadline. 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 say only that as health officer, Pechin made some decisions that “were not passed with our approval,” but decided 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 officer 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 orders of governor’s pandemic emergency by limiting crowds at events to 25 people or less. . Those orders also required the MEC to require customers to wear face coverings and practice social distancing, something the order said the Shipshewana business was not following.
Board of health members met for the first time two weeks ago to discuss the commissioner’s denial of the health officer and, at that meeting, chose to contact a small number of people in the county qualified to hold the health officer position. . They mailed and or emailed each person identified.
Only two doctors responded, one by way of an automated notification that the email had been read but without comment, and the second, a brief response from another doctor saying whether the commissioners were unwilling to support the board members’ decision. health, he had no interest in the post.
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 with 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 performing.
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 point during his last term as health officer, which included the COVID pandemic, did any of the commissioners approach him to express any concerns. Pechin made an appearance before commissioners in December 2020 and informed them that his office would be more aggressive in enforcing pandemic restrictions, including wearing masks, on businesses and organizations that do not comply with 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 Grossman’s. Billman added that he came away from that conversation believing Martin just thought it was “time to stir the pot a little bit and get some new blood in here.”
Swihart described her conversation with Martin as “useless.”
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 can be done in a very organized way.”
Retired LaGrange dentist Dr. Jeffery Bassett admitted he was blindsided by the commissioners’ move.
“I was disappointed that it happened, this situation,” he said. “We were caught off guard. If we had known any of this before, we could have taken care of it, or talked to 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 nice if they let us know if there is a problem. We’d like to know about that,” added Bassett.
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 sewer inspections and issues with how a condemnation of a Wolcottville apartment complex was handled raised eyebrows among his fellow commissioners. Cook added, however, that he thought both of those issues had been largely resolved.
“It’s a work in progress,” he told health board members.
Cook went on to suggest that there had likely been some sort of communication breakdown between the commissioners and the health department.
“They probably told you more than they told me,” he said of each recent conversation with the other two commissioners. “The only thing I’ve been told is ‘I don’t want to say on the record’ because they don’t want to say anything that looks bad.”
The board’s attorney, Tony Mann, told board members that the board should make a request to set up a meeting with the commissioners, but it will be up to the commissioners to decide whether or not they want that to happen. Mann then suggested that Cook speak to the other two 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 that he was willing to stay on until the issues were resolved or a replacement was named. This is unlikely to be resolved by the end of the year. The next scheduled health board meeting is not until the second week of January.