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HEALTH DEPARTMENT: Community assessment shows concerns about board performance

The Health Department of Northwest Michigan office in Bellaire.
The Health Department of Northwest Michigan office in Bellaire.

The Health Department of Northwest Michigan’s Board of Health learned this week what some residents think of it.

Results from surveys and listening sessions over the past several months indicate respondents are worried about lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, how health department staff are being treated, and that some board members are being led astray by disinformation.

The data was presented to the board during its meeting Tuesday at the Shirley Roloff Center in Charlevoix.

“It has become evident that several members of the board have no interest in supporting the health department through grant review and are, rather, focused on obstructing any and all grants,” said Emmet County resident Mary Lieberman during public comment before the presentation.

The health department selected Kari Krantz of KSK Consultancy to host and publicize “community listening sessions” which took place throughout May in the four counties the health department serves.

According to a report Krantz provided to the health board, a total of nine listening sessions were held. Most extended beyond the scheduled 90 minutes.

More than half of the 81 participants said the biggest challenges at the health department had to do with the board of health itself.

The May listening sessions took place around the time the board became divided over whether to apply for a school nutrition grant from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

The board ultimately failed to pass its meeting agenda, so the meeting itself could not take place, and it missed the deadline for submitting the grant application. That incident prompted more people to attend board meetings throughout the summer.

Listening sessions results

Krantz said she divided the participants into two groups that shared similar themes.

The smaller of the two groups focused its dialogue on the COVID-19 pandemic response and related issues. Some participants said the health department overreached with restrictions and mandates and encouraged board members to listen to medical expertise outside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

They called for a halt to the Northwest Michigan health department’s promotion of the COVID-19 vaccine, for grants to be pursued based only on the needs of the community and for respect for the county commissioners serving on the Board of Health.

The larger of the two groups saw the situation differently.

Those participants expressed concern that some members of the board were being led astray by disinformation and worried that experts employed by the health department were being undermined.

“They believe that some commissioners don't understand their purpose or role of serving on the board,” Krantz said during her presentation.

The group called for better understanding of the programs and services across the community, support for new programs to improve the health department, and formal training for board members.

Read the full report from KSK Consultancy on the health department website.

Health Officer Dan Thorell said the results of the listening sessions represent what the health board has heard during public comment.

“When we are doing strategic planning for the department, we can refer to this report and go back to those things as concerns or as strengths,” Thorell said. “So I think it's really valuable from that standpoint.”

Update on Nutrition Grant

Review policy passes, nutrition funding secured

The board unanimously passed a policy for how it should review and recommend future potential grants, a plan that’s been in the drafting phase through most of the summer.

Confusion arose in June over how much authority the Program and Evaluations Committee should have to approve or deny grant applications compared to the full board.

“This policy is intended to provide the Board of Health with oversight of grant funded programs, while ensuring the review process is not overly burdensome for HDNW staff and Program and Evaluation Committee members,” the draft said.

Read the full policy on the health department’s website.

The health board is made up of eight members — two commissioners from each of the four counties the Health Department represents: Antrim, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego. Their term limits depend on how long they hold a position on their respective county commissions.

On Tuesday, United Way of Northwest Michigan officials announced that they secured funding for a nutrition program targeting community schools.

This grant funding was thought be discontinued after the chance to apply was blocked by the Health Department of Northwest Michigan Board of Health earlier this summer.

The Whole Child Nutrition Policy, Infrastructure, Food Literacy program provided healthy food options and health education since 2014. Originally, the grant was a collaboration between the Health Department, Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, and the Charlevoix-Emmet School District.

But when the decision to re-apply for the grant was in front of the Board of Health in May, a stalemate vote over whether or not to approve a meeting agenda ended the regularly-scheduled meeting after about 30 minutes.

United Way stepped in to apply just prior to the application submission deadline.

“This grant will allow our local schools to expand upon successful farm-to-school initiatives already in place, which have proven successful in nurturing the knowledge, growth, and health of students and the school community,” said Char-Em Intermediate School District Director of Instructional Services Mike Haynes in a press release on Tuesday.

The $500,000 program will serve approximately 9,000 students in 20 schools throughout the Antrim, Charlevoix, and Emmet counties.

According to United Way, funds will be used for nutritional programming in schools to bolster awareness of healthy food choices, and to increase student access to locally produced foods in school cafeterias.

Rebeca Otto, director of regional community impact at United Way, said those benefits spurred them to secure the grant.

“We hope, however, that governing bodies will continue to pursue funding sources that staff bring forward," she said. "Nonprofit workers are exhausted and, while we have learned to expertly pivot, it is not the best use of our time.”

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