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Health Dept. of NW Mich. gets lawsuit updates, welcomes new faces

The Health Department of Northwest Michigan office in Bellaire.
The Health Department of Northwest Michigan office in Bellaire. (Photo: Jan-Michael Stump/Record-Eagle)
• The Health Department of Northwest Michigan will defend itself in oral arguments for two lawsuits this spring.

• New Board of Health member Terry VanAlstine attends his first meeting after reappointing Jarris Rubingh.

• New members will receive training in coming weeks

The Health Department of Northwest Michigan continues to defend itself in three lawsuits stemming from mask mandates and restrictions on large gatherings.

Health officer Dan Thorell gave members of the Board of Health an update this week at its regular meeting in Charlevoix.

The most recent case was brought by the Iron Pig Smokehouse in Gaylord this past August, stemming from a order given in 2020.

“In November of 2020, there was a cease and desist order given to them from the Health Department because of the state’s epidemic orders regarding restaurants and gatherings,” Thorell said.

The health department is asking the Otsego County Circuit Court to dismiss the case. Oral arguments are scheduled for April 9 at the Otsego County Courthouse.

Another suit filed by the Concerned Parents of Emmet County will resume this spring after the group appealed the decision by the Emmet County Circuit Court to dismiss the case.

The oldest of the lawsuits from the group “Let Them Breathe” — which opposed mask mandates in 2020 — was dismissed last year.

But the group is appealing the dismissal to the Michigan Supreme Court and waiting for a response on whether the case will be heard.

The department saw much polarization over pandemic-era health and safety guidelines.

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.

New board members

The board also welcomed its newer members this week.

Terry VanAlstine, chair of the Antrim County Commission, recently replaced Jarris Rubingh. Also, Neil Ahrens of Emmet County replaced Rich Ginop late last year.

Both of the former commissioners were often at the center of debates that resulted in gridlock at the Health Department of Northwest Michigan. The infighting from this past year often stemmed from grant proposals.

Ginop was ousted from the position 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.

Rubingh’s removal was part of the Antrim County Board of Commissioners annual reappointments.

During a Antrim County Board of Commissioners meeting on Jan. 18, VanAlstine removed Rubingh from his role and replaced him with himself saying, “I believe that is a non-political position.”

At the beginning of the Tuesday meeting, board member Henry Mason attempted to put forth a resolution to reconsider Rubingh’s “removal” from the Board of Health.

He was told that he’d need to revise the resolution and present it formally at the next regular meeting for all board members to consider.

Thorell said both Ahrens and VanAlstine will receive a comprehensive orientation that the more tenured members can also choose to attend.

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

It 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.

The board meets at 10 a.m. on the first Tuesday of every month.

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