The health officer dispute has not yet been resolved | News Sun

LAGRANGE — Commissioners largely ignored the controversy created by their rejection of LaGrange County Board of Health Dr. Tony Pechin’s October nomination for another four-year term as health officer at Monday’s regular commissioners meeting. Instead, they allowed their liaison, Commissioner Peter Cook, to announce at the end of Monday’s meeting that commissioners would not meet in executive session with the board of health member, as the board of health requested during a special meeting last week.

Cook said he learned after speaking with the commissioners’ legal board that because the health officer is not appointed by the commissioners, but instead nominated by the board of health, the commissioners cannot attend an executive session with the board of health members to discuss any issues they might have against Pechin.

Instead, Cook said, the board of health would have to appoint a health officer and then see if commissioners approve the candidate.

“I guess the health board will have to decide what they want to do. Will they reassign? I don’t know,” Cook said after the meeting.

The firestorm began at the commissioners’ meeting last November, when they voted 3-0 to deny Pechin another term as health officer. Thanks to a change in the law in 2021, the commissioners for the first time have the final say on that candidate, but are not at all involved in the process of choosing that person.

The health officer serves as the executive director of the health department and by law must be a licensed physician. Programs offered by the health department, such as injection programs and WIC, operate under the umbrella of its license. Pechin has been the county’s health officer since 2000 and was in charge of the health department during the recent COVID-19 pandemic. He is believed to have upset one or more of the commissioners by ordering the closure of the Michiana Events Center for allegedly repeatedly violating the governor’s mandates to limit crowds at public events to 25 people or less and require businesses to to enforce the state’s mask-wearing mandate, but they haven’t publicly said so

When he made the motion to deny Pechin another four terms, Myers said only that he thought it was time for a change at the health department. He later said Pechin had done things while the health officer “commissioners didn’t approve,” but declined to elaborate.

Historically, individuals serving as health officials in LaGrange County have tended to serve multiple terms during the limited number of professionals in the community with the qualifications to hold the position. When members of the health board approached other local doctors asking if anyone was interested in the position, only two responded, and none of them were interested in taking on the position of health officer.

There was no item on the agenda that spoke of the appointment of the board of health. Ironically, the commissioners made two appointments to the board of health, naming Charlie Ashcraft as the newest board member and returning Dr. Mike Conway to his seat on the board.

In other business, commissioners voted to reappoint Brenda Campos to the county liquor board. They also reappointed Nikki Heffelfinger to the LaGrange County Regional Utility District Board, Rita Lehner to the Library Board and Freeman Miller and Sherry Johnson to the Plan Commission. They appointed Robert Bond, George Bachman, Jenny Mines and Cole Miller to the local RDC board and Jessica Linder, Cheri Perkins and Brian Lambright to the CRV Tax Committee. Todd Perkins and Eric Knapp were returned to their seats on the drainage board.

In other business, Tharon Morgan, an engineer for the LaGrange County Highway Department, opened bids for three phases of local road projects. These offers were taken into consideration and will be announced at the special year-end commissioners meeting on December 29.

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