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Health board 'non-political:' Antrim County commissioner removed from post

The Health Department of Northwest Michigan office in Bellaire.
Jan-Michael Stump
The Health Department of Northwest Michigan office in Bellaire. (Photo: Jan-Michael Stump/Record-Eagle)

Antrim County Commissioner Jarris Rubingh, often at the center of debates that resulted in gridlock at the Health Department of Northwest Michigan, was removed from his position on the Board of Health last week.

During a Antrim County Board of Commissioners meeting on Jan. 18, the board’s chairman, Terry VanAlstine, removed Rubingh from his role and replaced him with himself.

“I see you have taken me off the health department,” Rubingh said to VanAlstine during the meeting. “Is there a reason that you are doing exactly what the Democrats want you to do?”

The Board of Health is made up of two commissioners from the four counties the health department represents — Emmet, Charlevoix, Antrim and Otsego. In Antrim County, assignments are reviewed annually.

The Board of Health carries a number of responsibilities, chief among them is hiring the medical director and health officer, who direct the department’s staff. The board is also responsible for approving budgets, setting up new programs and steering policies.

“I believe that is a non-political position,” VanAlstine said during Thursday's meeting. “I don’t believe that you are looking at the will of the county. You were looking at the will of the county less than you were a political statement on what you wanted to do to take away from the health department.”

Dawn LaVanway is the other Antrim County commissioner who serves on the Board of Health. She kept her position after the new appointments passed in a 4-1 vote with Rubingh being the singular “no" vote.

"You were looking at the will of the county less than you were a political statement on what you wanted to do to take away from the health department.”
Terry VanAlstine
chairman, Antrim Co. Board of Commissioners

Rubingh is now slotted to represent the county’s interests on the following boards and committees for 2024: the Antrim Creek Natural Area; the E-911 board; Farmland and Open Space Preservation board; North Country Community Mental Health; Northern Michigan Counties Association; Soil Erosion, Sedimentation & Stormwater Runoff Appeals board and Street & Road Numbering Appeals Committee.

The only new appointment he has out of that list is the 911 board, he said. They've been working on trying to install an updated 911 tower in Antrim County to try and get better signals for first responders.

"It'll be interesting to be on that committee and get that launched this year," he said. "It's supposed to be a higher tower and get a better signal."

Politics and debate

On Monday night Rubingh alleged that members of the Antrim County Democratic Party have been calling VanAlstine and asking for his removal from the board for the past five or six months.

"I was a little surprised because all of the commissioners are Republicans," he said.

Rubingh, owner of Rubingh's Dairyland, was at the forefront of debates and infighting about grant-funded programs at the Board of Health last year.

In May, the board was 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 the health department missed the deadline for submitting the grant application.

When United Way of Northwest Michigan officials announced that it secured funding for the same nutrition program months later, more people attended the proceeding meetings.

Looking back on his tenure, Rubingh said he doesn't regret any of his decisions while serving on the board.

"I always try to make the best decision with the information that I'm given," he said. "I guess the most recent one that generated some controversy was the nutrition grant for schools and I thought that the way that turned out was excellent."

“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.”
Jarris Rubingh
Antrim Co. commissioner

"The Health Department isn't responsible for the grant, instead we have a nonprofit organization that's responsible for it now and the Health Department doesn't have to hire another employee or manage another grant when we already have a whole bunch of them," Rubingh explained. "Whenever you can have private people or a nonprofit fill a need — that's excellent."

Rubingh’s concerns stem from what he called “healthy skepticism” about government overreach. As chair of the health department’s Programs and Evaluations subcommittee, he routinely stalemated votes for the application to grant program opportunities.

“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 told the Record-Eagle after a board of health meeting on June 7, 2023. “And some things started to creep in from different areas that may not represent northern Michigan very well.”

His critics, who often appeared in public comment sections of the meetings, have called him a roadblock of funding opportunities for community health programs.

As for his supporters, Rubingh has previously told the Record-Eagle and IPR that his constituents are happy with his decisions on the Board of Health.

“No matter which commissioner you have on which boards, we all have our different opinions and constituents,” Rubingh said to VanAlstine Thursday. “I do believe the health department is in a better state today than when I was put on.”

What's next

As for the future, Rubingh said he isn't sure if he wants to rejoin the board of health.

"I have had some calls from Antrim County that were surprised that I was taken off and they didn't think it was proper," he said. "I think some of those people wouldn't have always agreed with my position, but they didn't think that it was necessary."

He added that some of those people who he spoke with on the phone agreed with the statements he made during the Jan. 18 meeting when VanAlstine made his decision about replacing Rubingh on the board.

Rubingh also served on the Board of Health in 2021, when 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.

“Sometimes you may have all the board of health members come back. It’s probably more common that you have a different board of health members each year.”
Dan Thorell
health officer, Health Dept. of Northwest Michigan

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.

According to current Health Officer for HDNW Dan Thorell having new commissioners serve on the board of health at the start of each year isn’t uncommon.

“Sometimes you may have all the board of health members come back,” he said. “It’s probably more common that you have a different board of health members each year.”

Thorell said he hasn’t talked to VanAlstine individually since the switch, but noted that each year he and his team work together with new board members. Some of the topics they discuss include the state’s public health code, what their role is, what the health department’s role is and what their organizational hierarchy entails.

“We make sure they have any information they need in order to govern,” he said.

VanAlstine was unable to be reached for comment after multiple attempts.

As of Monday afternoon, Thorell said he wasn’t aware of any other switch ups on the health department board for this next calendar year. He confirmed that commissioners from Charlevoix County — Scott Hankins and Josh Chamberlain — and the commissioners from Emmet County — Neil Ahrens and Don Mapes — will remain the same.

Ahrens was appointed to his role on the board of health in September after fellow Emmet County Commissioners ousted former board member Rich Ginop.

That decision came after almost three hours of public comment during the Sept. 11 board of commissioners meeting, with commissioners voting 5-1 to remove Ginop, who abstained from that vote.

Otsego County has not yet finalized their committee and board selections for 2024, according to their website.

The first board of health meeting in the new year is scheduled to take place on Feb. 6 at 10 a.m. at the Shirley Roloff Center in Charlevoix. Thorell said this meeting will be an organizational meeting and provide board members a chance for them to meet and talk with any new members.

Depending on how many new members there are, Thorell said they’ve also used the first meeting of the year as an orientation to serving on the board in years past.

“We look forward to working with any board of health member that we may have, and they can change from year to year,” he said. “We just do our best to make sure they understand how the health department works and our role and responsibility in our community.”

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