The Jefferson County Health Board decided not to renew the contract for the county’s health officer, Joan Van Duynhoven — effective Sept. 1.
Van Duynhoven, who has served in that capacity for 14 years, said she was notified Aug. 24 by email with a letter attached.
“I did the best I could for the situation I was in, went above and beyond and that wasn’t good enough,” said Van Duynhoven.
“This is a public health issue,” she said.
Jefferson County Commissioners Leonard Wortman and Bob Mullen said County Attorney Steve Haddon had recommended her contract not be renewed. Haddon said he would not comment on personnel matters. Wortman also indicated that the decision by the Health Board was unanimous.
Jefferson County Health Board Chairperson Christina Binkowski and Haddon did not respond to questions about when and how the decision was made, and Health Board member Sandy Sacry declined to comment. Wortman and Mullen do not serve on the Health Board.
Wortman pointed to two reasons why Van Duynhoven’s contract was not renewed — the decision not to approve the health plan for the Northern Rodeo Association portion of the Jefferson County Rodeo, as well as a “misleading” statement in the initial directive issued by the health officer canceling non-conference high school sports this fall.
The initial directive indicated that the health officer had conferred with officials at Jefferson and Whitehall High Schools, but that wasn’t the case, said Wortman.
Jefferson High School Superintendent Tim Norbeck confirmed officials at his school were not consulted prior to the initial directive. A meeting was held after that initial directive, which was followed by a final decision to cancel non-conference games, said Norbeck.
“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Wortman.
Van Duynhoven’s Aug. 14 initial directive stated, “In consultation with school administrators and our Public Health Supervisor, I am directing the two high schools in our county; Jefferson and Whitehall to not participate in non conference sports for the Fall 2020 season.”
The directive also included the following:
“Travel outside of the local community. Traveling outside of the local community may increase the chances of exposing players, coaches, and fans to COVID-19, or unknowingly spreading it to others. This is the case particularly if a team from an area with high levels of COVID-19 competes with a team from an area with low levels of the virus. Youth sports teams should consider competing only against teams in their local area (e.g., neighborhood, town, or community). CDC.gov.”
Wortman said not renewing Van Duynhoven’s contract during the COVID-19 pandemic was “appropriate.”
“She was causing more problems than solving,” he said, adding that the decision to cancel non-conference games was “arbitrary.”
Why is one team any more dangerous than another, said Wortman.
For instance, Manhattan, a conference team, is about an hour away.
In an email to the Monitor, Van Duynhoven said she limited the games to conference opponents as a way to reduce exposure as much as possible. She said it was an alternative to canceling all competition, as she realizes sports bring energy to the school.
“I am trying to be somewhere in the middle,” she said.
Van Duynhoven is authorized by Montana statute to regulate events that pose a health risk.
Van Duynhoven said this will be a tough position to fill during a pandemic.
According to state statute 50-2-117, if a local health board does not appoint a health officer, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services can appoint one 30 days after written notification has been made to the local health board.
Van Duynhoven served as a contract employee of the Health Board.
A health officer in Montana is required to have one of the following qualifications — be a physician, be a person with a master’s degree in public health or be a person with equivalent education and experience, as determined by the department, according to state statute.
Wortman said the Health Board has some possible candidates in mind for the job.