LAGRANGE – The question of who will serve as the next health officer for LaGrange County remains up in the air after board of health members met Thursday night, where they admitted they still don’t know why commissioners voted to reject their appointee.
The board that oversees the LaGrange County Health Department voted in October to reappoint Dr. Tony Pechin for another four-year term as health officer, but his appointment was defeated when commissioners exercised their right recently granted by a change in state law to deny that designation.
Board of Health 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 with them in executive session.
In October, the board of health 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 2021 change in state law, commissioners were given final authority for that appointment, and at their Nov. 21 meeting, they caught the board of health by surprise voting to deny Pechin another term. 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 said only that as a health official, Pechin made some decisions that “did not meet with our approval,” but chose 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 power to condemn properties when they are considered uninhabitable and unsafe.
Pechin and the health department, through the health department’s attorney, handed the Michiana Events Center in Shipshewana the emergency order to close in early 2021, saying the Shipshewana business had repeatedly violated the governor’s pandemic emergency orders limiting crowds at events of up to 25 people or less. Those orders also required the MEC to require patrons to wear face coverings and practice social distancing, something the Shipshewana business said the order did not follow.
Board of health members met for the first time two weeks ago to discuss the commissioner of health officer’s denial, and at that meeting chose to reach out to the handful of people in the county qualified to fill the health officer job. They mailed and/or emailed each person identified.
Only two doctors responded, one via an automatic email read notification but no comment, and a second, brief response from another doctor who said that if the commissioners were unwilling to support the health board members’ decision, 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 with Martin. He called that conversation “open” and said Martin told him that “some actions during COVID are only a small part of his concern” about Pechin. Afterward, Grossman said Martin told him the commissioner’s biggest concern was how the health department was doing.
Pechin, who was not present at 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 raise any concerns. Pechin did appear before commissioners in December 2020 and informed them that his office would be more aggressive in enforcing pandemic restrictions, including the wearing of masks, at businesses and organizations that do not comply with state regulations.
Board of Health 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 walked away from that conversation, believing that Martin just felt it was “time to shake things up a little bit and get some new blood in here.”
Swihart described his conversation with Martin as “useless.”
Swihart said the board should request a formal meeting with the commissioners “to defuse” the apparent tension between the two.
“I was hoping 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 achieved in a very organized way.”
Retired LaGrange dentist Dr. Jeffrey Bassett admitted he was blindsided by the commissioners’ move.
“I was disappointed that this happened, this situation,” he said. “We were kind of caught off guard. If we had known any of this before, we could have taken care of it or discussed something with Dr. Pechin. But 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 good if they let us know if there is a problem. We’d like to know about that,” Bassett added.
Commissioner Peter Cook, who acts as liaison between commissioners and the health board, attended Thursday’s meeting. Cook said he believes problems with complaints about sewer inspections and issues with how the condemnation of a Wolcottville apartment complex was handled raised the eyebrows of his fellow commissioners. However, Cook added that he believes both issues are largely resolved.
“It’s a work in progress,” he told health board members.
Cook went on to suggest that there may have 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 recent conversations with the other two commissioners. “The only thing they said to me was, ‘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 the commissioners will decide whether or not they want that to happen. Mann then suggested that Cook speak to the other two commissioners at Monday’s regular commissioners meeting.
Pechin’s term expires at the end of the year, but Pechin told the board at their last meeting that he is willing to stay on until the issues are resolved or a replacement is appointed. This is unlikely to be resolved before the end of the year. The next scheduled meeting of the board of health is not until the second week of January.