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How an angry, divided board of health pushed a health officer to resign

In late August, Health Department of Northwest Michigan Health Officer Lisa Peacock and the Medical Director Josh Meyerson looked at increasing COVID numbers with concern.

The Friday before many students were set to return to school, the health department decided to set up a mask mandate.

Many community members were furious with the news and they showed up in force at the first board of health meeting in September.

About 120 people came in person to that meeting, maxing out the space in the Charlevoix Public Library. Petoskey resident Jenni Attie was there to support universal masking in schools.

“People were playing music from their cell phones when people were trying to talk. Most of the county commissioners weren’t wearing masks. It was very volatile,” Attie said.

Attie left after two hours to pick up her kids from school and tuned into the rest of the meeting over Zoom on her phone.

She watched as people hacked into the Zoom in an attempt to disrupt the meeting.

“[They were] swearing and [putting up] pornographic imaging. It was just awful. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Attie said.

The Board of Health of the Health Department of Northwest Michigan is made up of commissioners from Antrim, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties. Most of them criticized health officer Lisa Peacock for the mask mandate.

During that September meeting, the board passed a resolution to block it, but Peacock didn’t rescind her order, so masks stayed.

Peacock felt at one point the room was on the brink of a riot and she needed to be escorted by police from the building.

“When people are in those board meetings and they are moving closer as they’re yelling at you and interrupting [you]. It’s all just very rattling,” she said. “Those experiences are just hard to get out of your mind and you just feel like you’re being terrorized.”

Soon after that, she took a medical leave.

Following the September meeting, two board members from Emmet County, who had been critical of her, resigned.

But opposition to Peacock remained strong. Some of the board put forward a motion to fire her in November, but it failed.

Then, some members tried to fire the board attorney because she was seen as sympathetic to Peacock.

In January, Antrim County commissioners voted to remove its own commissioner, Karen Bargy, as the chair of the Board of Health, because she supported Peacock.

At the time, the newly appointed member of the board of health from Emmet County, Charlie MacInnis, said he was so shocked by the dysfunction, he resigned. But he then rejoined the board because he felt a responsibility to fix it.

“It remains the singularly most unpleasant board experience I’d ever had in my life,” MacInnis said. “I’m told that in many places anger has become the norm in public settings. This one is right in there.”

Despite efforts from her employer to sanction her, Peacock continued to show up to meetings, but her frustration with the board grew. She suspected the chaos at the meeting in September was coordinated by some of the hostile board members.

Peacock filed a complaint with the Charlevoix Police Department alleging some members of the board broke state laws, including: obstruction of person enforcing health law, intimidation of public officer, violating the open meetings act and willful neglect of duty.

Local officers and the Michigan State Police sent their findings to the Charlevoix Prosecutor’s Office, which declined to authorize charges because it didn’t find evidence of crimes.

As the board continued to push against Peacock over the months, members of the community were just as outspoken.

In the fall, more than 100 people signed their name to a full page ad in the Petoskey News-Review, supporting the health department.

Those opposed to the mandate showed up to board meetings and filed lawsuits against the health department.

Peacock’s most vocal opponents started a campaign of harassment. She says she got hundreds of Christmas cards with obscene language. On Thanksgiving, a police officer showed up at her door after someone in the community filed a false complaint against her.

Peacock says it wasn’t the public pressure that got to her, but the lack of support from her board.

She thought things would settle down after she dropped the mask mandate last week when COVID numbers had fallen. But next week the board plans to discusscutting some of the health department’s funding.

Peacock offered her resignation Tuesday, which will go into effect on April 29th.

"I'm sorry to see her go," said Shirley Roloff, a board member from Charlevoix County. "I know [each board member] has their own right to decide what they want to do. I just think we took it too far this time."

Other board members, when reached, refused to comment, or did not respond to requests from IPR News.

Norm Hess, the Executive Director of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health, said there have been several places that have conflicts with their health departments, but Peacock's experience was the most extreme he'd seen in the state.

"It is very concerning to other health officers. We have seen in the past when one local governing board makes a decision others may try to follow in their footsteps," Hess said.

Some people are disappointed to see Peacock go because of her work building county-run health services to rural schools.

She helped establish school-based health centers in northern Michigan schools, bringing in behavioral psychiatrists to address students’ mental health needs, before other places in the state jumped on that model.

Attie said she doesn’t know if the health board will find a leader as qualified as Peacock.

“I’m sure they’re out there but who would want to subject themselves to this type of volatility?”

Taylor Wizner covers heath, tourism and other news for Interlochen Public Radio.