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NW Mich. health board gets earful at first meeting after grant gridlock

CHARLEVOIX — The subject on the agenda was the same as it was the last time — grants.

But unlike last month, when a dispute over whether to apply for a $500,000 Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles Initiatives grant meant the board couldn't approve its own agenda, on Tuesday, the Health Department of Northwest Michigan took power from its subcommittees on the ability to quash grants.

The health department currently receives funding for estimated 129 grants, according to the agency's Public Information Officer Janenne Pung.

The motion passed 7-1 to require every future grant application go before the full board, with Charlevoix Commissioner and HDNWM board member Josh Chamberlain voting no.

When asked why, Chamberlain said he had a problem with the word “future” in the motion’s language. He would have rather had the word “new” instead, he explained.

“I thought it was pretty vague,” he said. “I guess I was hoping that it would just be for all new grants coming forward, that was the biggest thing.”

Preceding the move was nearly an hour of public comment, plus a hour-long closed session “to discuss attorney-client privileged written legal opinion,” the agenda said.

Many community members weighed in on the member actions that surrounded the Michigan Health Endowment Fund (MHEF) 2023 Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles Initiatives grant. The grant, in operation since 2014, provides healthy food options and health education for Charlevoix-Emmet Intermediate School District.

But the health board's Programs and Evaluations subcommittee voted 2-2 not to recommend applying for the grant at its April 17 meeting, with opposition lead by Otsego County Commissioner Jonathan Turnbull and Antrim County Commissioner Jarris Rubingh.

According to the Emmett Responsible Government website, Rubingh’s concerns with the grant stems from administrator Groundwork Center's equity statement which says the organization is committed to anti-racist practices and its mission on climate change solutions.

The deadline to apply for the two-year, $500,000 grant passed, and health board members had to schedule a mid-May special meeting to take care of the health department's administrative tasks like payroll, after the early adjournment.

Many citizens on Tuesday said the board missed an opportunity to provide essential services to area schools.

“The nutritional grant would have been something that would have been very, very welcomed in local school districts,” said Aaron Gaffney, superintendent for Ellsworth Community Schools. “Especially small school districts, like what I represent, we don't always have the resources.”

Lisa Penberthy-Keene, a teacher for Petoskey Elementary School, said she’s seen firsthand how life changing these grant-funded programs can be for her students and commended the commissioners who answered her calls and listened to her.

“Dawn [LaVanway] and Josh [Chamberlain] both responded neutrally and cared about hearing my concerns about my fellow citizens and the others refused to speak,” she said.

Penberthy-Keene said she reached out to Rubingh multiple times to ask why he voted "no" on the grant, and said he never responded.

Rubingh said he received 80 to 90 emails in his inbox as well as countless voicemail messages. He said it will always be his first priority to respond to his constituents from Antrim County.

He said he’s heard from voters who want him to keep asking the board questions about how things are run and the decisions that they make.

“I think for years, the Board of Health didn't do a whole lot of oversight. We just let the directors just kind of let it go,” he said after the meeting adjourned. “And some things started to creep in from different areas that may not represent northern Michigan very well.”

The closed session meeting with the attorney lasted about an hour and is the first such session of the year, said Pung.

Once the board returned and the meeting resumed, Charlevoix County Commissioner and Board Chair Scott Hankins asked for a motion that would set a precedent for how the board would handle grant applications in the future.

“This was part of the reason for having the closed session,” Hankins said during the meeting. “We got a couple opinions from our attorney, which we went over in our closed session. But, in having that at the beginning of the meeting to help drive this conversation later on.”

He said it was important for them to have clarity on what the grant management policy might look like going forward.

Hankins then made a motion that would require the authority of the board for any “future potential” grant decisions they may face. It was seconded by Emmet County Commissioner and HDNWM board member Rich Ginop.

The Programs and Evaluations Committee will not have to go through the board in order to pass every grant that comes across their desks.

“My motion is that the Programs and Evaluations Committee have the authority to review potential future grants and make recommendations to the full board of health for approval or denial,” Hankins said.

This idea of creating a policy for handling grants in the future is something that the health department’s health officer Daniel Thorell said he has never done before.

“I think it’s just going to boil down to really defining the process,” he said. “We’ll have something to bring to the board that kind of defines that process of how we’re taking grants to that committee and how that’s going to work.”

That will be discussed at the board’s next meeting Aug. 1 at 10 a.m. at the Shirley Roloff Center in Charlevoix.

Reporting on this story was a collaborative effort between the Traverse City Record-Eagle and Interlochen Public Radio.

Corrected: June 8, 2023 at 4:59 PM EDT
This story has been updated to reflect that the health department currently receives funding for estimated 129 grants. An earlier version said that they were applying for that number.
Michael Livingston covers the area around the Straits of Mackinac - including Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties as a Report for America corps member.