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Letcher replaces Peck on county health board

by DERRICK PERKINS
Daily Inter Lake | December 11, 2020 7:00 AM

Commissioner Josh Letcher (D-3) joined the local health board Dec. 9 as part of an effort to make the group more representative of the county as a whole.

Letcher, the Eureka representative on the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners, replaced Commissioner Mark Peck (D-1) of Libby in a show of good faith. The move comes after north Lincoln County residents began a push in recent weeks to secure more seats for the Eureka area on the board.

The health board, which has come under intense scrutiny during the pandemic, consists of members appointed by the commissioners and each of the county’s three major municipalities. That has left the board heavily skewed toward the county seat. All three of the commissioners’ appointees hail from in and around Libby. Combined with Peck and the Libby representative to the board, that gives the county seat five spots on the panel.

Commissioners raised the possibility of increasing representation from the north end of the county after residents, opposed to state and local pandemic measures, lobbied for disbanding the health board and ousting Health Officer Dr. Brad Black. When that idea failed to gain traction, many of the same residents started pushing for increased representation on the board for Eureka.

The issue came to a head after Dr. Sara Mertes, a commissioner-appointed member, indicated last month she would seek another term on the health board. Her current term expires at the end of the calendar year.

North county residents, joined by Debra Armstrong, the Eureka representative to the board, opposed her nomination.

Peck joined the majority of the health board Nov. 23 in voting to nominate Mertes for another term, but pledged to work with his fellow commissioners to make the board more geographically equitable.

Peck stepping aside for Letcher immediately grants the north county more representation on the board. Peck also recommended Dec. 9 that commissioners take board member George Jamison up on his offer to resign and replace him with a Eureka-area resident.

Jamison, who lives in the Libby area, has repeatedly suggested he step aside.

“I am willing, and I think it’s probably time for me, to step down off that board for a number of reasons,” Jamison said.

Jamison likely will remain on the Libby Asbestos Superfund Advisory Committee and indicated willingness to serve as a volunteer advisor to commissioners for related matters.

Commissioners also discussed requiring that each of their appointees hail from a different portion of the county in the future. Letcher said he would like to see a bylaw change that incorporated more representation from Eureka on all county commissions and committees.

“The population in the north has grown quite a bit over the last 10 years,” he said. “The new census will probably tell us just what the growth was. If we’re not half the population [of the county], we’re probably really close to it at this point, based on real estate sales.”

Armstrong, who along with fellow health board member Jim Seifert attended the meeting via phone, praised the addition of Letcher to the board. Seifert, though, lamented the loss of Peck, citing the commissioner’s past medical experience in the U.S. Air Force.

“With that expertise and that experience, I hate to see you get off,” said Seifert, who represents Troy.

Thanking Seifert for his praise, Peck said he had largely served as a liaison between the boards rather than as any sort of medical expert. He always looked at issues before the board with an eye to the bigger picture.

“I keep hearing the term, ‘politicizing public health,’ but by its nature public health is public — it’s political,” Peck said. “The ramifications spread beyond one-on-one patient care. … I don’t think [medical expert] is the role I fill on the board.”

Residents, many speaking from the Eureka county annex, generally supported Letcher’s move to the board. Once commissioners replace Jamison, the north county will have three representatives on the entity.

A few residents called for the removal of board Chair Jan Ivers. She has drawn criticism for her handling of the public during several contentious health board meetings in the past year. Pierce Barney, a north county resident, said removing her from the board would signal to the Eureka area that commissioners took their concerns seriously.

Letcher echoed calls to remove Ivers, at least as board chair.

“I don’t know the lady,” he said. “Just listening to the meetings, there’s some kind of tension [there].”

Peck noted that Ivers was the sole member of the board willing to serve as chair and took the job only after others passed on the position.

“In her defense, no one else would step up to chair. I don’t think she wants to do it,” Peck said. “It’s not like she bulldozed her way in there and demanded to be the chair of the health board. No one else would step up and accept that mantle.”

County Commissioner Jerry Bennett ultimately made the motion to appoint Letcher to the health board. Letcher seconded the motion. The vote was unanimous.

Commissioners indicated they would take up Jamison’s replacement and the reappointment of Mertes at a future meeting, likely when they gather next week for their monthly session in Eureka.

During his time on the health board, Peck had consistently supported Black, who has come under withering fire for his pandemic measures, while remaining critical of his policies. The two do not always see eye-to-eye, Peck has said, but he considers the longtime Libby doctor a dedicated and compassionate professional committed to the community.

After his appointment to the board, Letcher said he planned to move forward on the basis of “truth,” citing discrepancies in the rationales for Black’s July health order and proposed December health order. Jinnifer Mariman, the health board’s legal representative, said during its Nov. 23 meeting that one reason for a local order is that it gave authorities better standing in court during enforcement proceedings.

Letcher said he expected to continue asking hard questions and sorting through what is and isn’t known about the coronavirus pandemic.

As for whether he foresaw himself voting to remove Black as the health officer, as many in north Lincoln County have called for, Letcher said it was unlikely, if not beyond the realm of possibilities.

“I don’t think so, but I can’t tell you the future,” he said.