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Acrimony, gridlock raise concerns on NW Mich. Board of Health

An entrance to Munson Medical Center in Traverse City. Munson Healthcare announced changes that will affect all seven of their hospitals across northern Michigan. (Photo: Ellie Katz/IPR News)
An entrance to Munson Medical Center in Traverse City. Munson Healthcare announced changes that will affect all seven of their hospitals across northern Michigan. (Photo: Ellie Katz/IPR News)

Last month, a large crowd gathered at the board meeting for the Health Dept of NW Michigan. They wanted to voice opinions on a school nutrition grant after a subcommittee of the board recommended nixing its renewal.

But a stalemate vote over whether or not to approve a meeting agenda had board members and attendees leaving after less than 30 minutes.

It was the first time an agenda failed to pass in recent years. A 40-page agenda was left on the table with little action. As a result, the board had to set a special meeting on May 15 to handle administrative business, including monthly bills and payroll.

It’s been nearly a month since then but next week, the board will try again to complete another regularly scheduled meeting. On the agenda is a discussion about how the board will review and proceed with new grants – but long standing acrimony is still a concern for residents.


The most recent Board of Health meeting, on May 2 ended shortly after it began when members could not get a majority vote to approve the day’s agenda.

Commissioners were divided over a committee recommendation to not apply for the Michigan Health Endowment Fund (MHEF) 2023 Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles Initiatives.

The grant for $500,000 would go toward providing healthy food options and health education for Charlevoix-Emmet Intermediate School District. According to the request for proposals, the health department would provide nutrition education lessons to classrooms, support coordination of pop-up farmers markets in schools, and assist in completing kitchen audits.

According to Laurie Solotorow, Senior Program Officer for this grant for the MHEF, these grants have been in operation since 2014.

The maximum amount each individual organization is allowed to apply for is $500,000 over two years, which is the same amount the board was looking at for their proposal.

The decision to apply for the grant was on the agenda to be decided by the entire board.

But Jarris Rubingh, one of the commissioners from Antrim County, argued that the decision had already been made when the four-member Programs and Evaluations subcommittee voted not to recommend applying for the grant at its April 17 meeting.

He and Otsego County Commissioner Jonathan Turnbull recommended not applying for the grant, according to written meeting minutes. The other two commissioners on the subcommittee voted in favor of the grant. This left the subcommittee with a 2-2 vote, which meant it did not get approved.

At the next full board meeting, on May 3, Rubingh motioned to remove discussion of the grant from the agenda. It failed in a 4-4 vote.

Immediately after that, the board chairman, Commissioner Scott Hankins from Charlevoix County, asked for a motion to pass the agenda as it was, which also failed in 4-4 vote.

Rubingh has not responded to requests for comment in time for publication, but another commissioner shared his 12-item list of concerns with the Record-Eagle.

These included the belief that the grants would lead to an expansion of government, concerns about the pass-through nature of the grant with the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities and a lack of transparency as to what the nutrition education curriculum would be.

Rubingh’s concerns with the Groundwork Center stems from an equity statement which says the organization is committed to anti-racist practices and the organization’s commitment to climate change solutions.

“Preventing death should not be a political thing, preventing injury should not be should not have a political focus. And in some cases, it appears that politics creeped in, which is unfortunate."
— Mary Kushion, former director of the Central Michigan District Health Dept.

Officials in support of the grant have since criticized Rubingh and Turnbull’s positions.

“We're all supportive of the health department. And that's what you should be if you're on a board,” said Dawn LaVanway, the second board member from Antrim County. “Ask questions, make sure that people get good service. That doesn't mean vote no on everything. It's about looking out for the betterment of the people.”

Health Department staff member Janenne Pung later confirmed the board would not be pursuing the grant since the deadline has already passed.

However, other area nonprofits have said they filled out an application for the same grant and confirmed that the money will fund all of the existing programs about nutrition and healthy foods, if they are selected. They asked not to be named publicly until after the grant award winners are announced in August.

The four counties HDNM represents contain just around 110,000 people. According to the 2022 fiscal year budget, appropriations from those local governments only make up about four percent of the health department’s revenue. Grants and donations bring in nearly four times the amount, at around 25 percent of their total budget.


The falling out over funding for the 2023 Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles Initiatives was not the only high-profile disagreement in recent months.

In April, a resolution that would have barred future COVID-19 protocols was narrowly shot down at the board’s regular meeting. The resolution sought to restrict the health department from enforcing emergency orders for things like testing, vaccines, and mask mandates after 28 days of an emergency order.

Board member and Emmet County Commissioner Rich Ginop introduced the resolution after hearing repeated concerns from constituents.

The health board attorney, Matt Cross, said much of the resolution wouldn’t stand if challenged in court. The resolution needed a three-fourths majority to pass. It failed in a 4-4 vote.

In 2021, then-health officer Lisa Peacock filed a complaint with the state Attorney General’s Office that said board members intimidated her and facilitated threats against her after she issued a school mask mandate.

Peacock eventually resigned, citing “a hostile work environment.” The board eventually approved a pact with Peacock that paid her $249,000 as part of her settlement agreement.

Peacock had been with the HDNM for 12 years and health officer since 2015.

“I’m fairly traumatized by all this and need to heal,” she told the Record-Eagle at the time.


The Health Department of Northwest Michigan is a district health department. That means it represents two or more counties — in this case, Antrim, Charlevoix, Emmet, and Otsego.

Two commissioners from each of the four counties are appointed to serve on the board. Their term limits depend on how long they hold a position in the county commission.

Below is a list of board members, the county they represent and the year in which they joined the board:

  • Jarris Rubingh - Antrim - 2021
  • Dawn LaVanway - Antrim - 2023
  • Josh Chamberlain - Charlevoix - 2023
  • Scott Hankins - Charlevoix - 2021
  • Rich Ginop - Emmet - 2023
  • Don Mapes - Emmet - 2023
  • Jonathan Turnbull - Otsego - 2023
  • Henry Mason - Otsego - Dec. 2022

The Board of Health carries a number of responsibilities, chief among them is hiring the medical director and health officer, who direct the agency staff. The board is also responsible for approving budgets, setting up new programs and steering policy.
Mary Kushion held roles as public health director and health officer at the Central Michigan District Health Department based in Mount Pleasant for nearly 25 years. She now reached public health as a fixed term faculty member at Central Michigan University.

In her experience, she said Board of Health members should also be advocates for the health department and its programs.

“Public health is all about prevention. It's the prevention of premature death, disability and illness,” Kushion said. “We're addressing what they call the social determinants of health ... you want to make sure that when a gap or a barrier is identified or something is a concern, public health is that safety net.”

Also in Michigan, the top health official for Ottawa County, Adeline Hambley, has been in a legal battle with the county after they took action to "constructively terminate" her earlier this year.

Hambley had been hired in December but eight new members of her board took office in January. The board members were all elected with the support of the Ottawa Impact PAC, the group that originally formed in opposition to mask mandates in schools.

Kushion said the acrimony in HDNM mirrors a larger trend in local boards around the country brought on by the polarization caused by pandemic health and safety guidelines.

“Preventing death should not be a political thing, preventing injury should not be should not have a political focus. And in some cases, it appears that politics creeped in, which is unfortunate,” Kushion said. “My hope is that once COVID goes into the distant past, that the ship writes itself, that the waters become a lot more calm.”

The HDNM is up for reaccreditation next year which means they’ll have to prove to the state they’re taking initiatives to follow the public health code.

Health Officer for HDNM Dan Thorell said the board will have to work on their communication moving forward – especially because many of the members are new.

“We just need clarity going forward with the board as far as how we're going to be handling things procedurally, especially around grants,” he said.

A full agenda for the Board of Health’s next meeting is available on the HDNM website. Two items under unfinished business are clarification regarding grant oversight and grant management policy.

They are scheduled to meet on Tuesday, June 6 at 9 a.m. at the Shirley Roloff Center in Charlevoix.

Michael Livingston covers the area around the Straits of Mackinac - including Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties as a Report for America corps member.