Some proposed changes to the board of San Juan Basin Health Department met with fierce opposition Wednesday in a special meeting before La Plata County Commissioners.
State legislation passed last year requires all counties to take a fresh look at their public health agencies and make decisions about how to structure them in the future.
At Wednesday's meeting - which drew about 90 attendees, some of whom had to stand in the hallway for lack of space - commissioners passed a resolution to retain San Juan Basin Health, which serves La Plata and Archuleta counties, as its district public health agency. Archuleta County this week passed the same resolution.
But the matter that generated hours of denunciation - speakers were limited to five minutes each - was a proposal put forth by county staff to install the commissioners of La Plata and Archuleta counties as the new board with one at-large member.
County Attorney Sheryl Rogers, in a presentation at the meeting, said this would allow the county to respond nimbly to other changes required by the legislation.
"We really want to be able to stay fast on our feet," she said.
Once the process was complete, the commissioners would step aside and appoint a new board, she said.
But speakers at the meeting argued that commissioners lacked the time and expertise to make an effective board. Some suggested that outside agendas would muddy the mission of the agency, which has a budget of about $6 million and is responsible for about 70 programs.
"There is a strong body of evidence, both nationally and statewide, that illustrates why such as close alignment with local politics is a bad idea and generally detrimental to the public's health," said Lynn Westberg, longtime director of the agency.
Echoing this, Mark Wienpahl, a family doctor and chairman of the current health board, said, "I think you're making a big mistake to try to be the board of health for a short time period. I don't think you estimate accurately what that's going to do to our health depart at this point."
Among the board's current members are La Plata County Commissioner Joelle Riddle and Archuleta County Commissioner Robert Moomaw, who both have a health background.
Sheryl Ayers, a former commissioner who served on the health board during her tenure, said that, currently, health board members have the luxury of focusing exclusively on health.
"The county commissioner job is too big for you to take on the details."
Some questioned the county's motives.
"The perception is that you're not being open and honest about what the purpose is," said Michael Hannigan, whose occupation is in environmental health. "It appears like a hostile takeover."
Riddle responded sharply to the litany of criticism.
"Not once have I nor any of these board members said that we are looking to cut back the funding of public health, to do anything but support, shore up and find a permanent place of importance for public health in the whole system of La Plata County health care," she said.
Commissioner Wally White, responding to fears of many in the room who either work for or with the agency, said, "We have no desire to see anyone lose their job or lose their benefits."
Many speakers asked that a public meeting be held before a decision is made about the board.
Commissioner Kellie Hotter said the decision "needs more public process," but it is not clear whether a meeting will be scheduled.
County Manager Shawn Nau said staff members were waiting to hear from the state how the appointment process should be conducted.
The state requires the board be in place within 90 days.