Former Libby city councilor calls on commissioners to rein in health department

Editor | October 13, 2020 7:00 AM

A former Libby city councilor charged the Lincoln County Health Department with unethical behavior last week and called on county commissioners to take the local agency to task.

Speaking during the public comment portion of the board’s Oct. 7 meeting, Libby resident DC Orr told commissioners they had “the authority … to clean that mess up.” Among his complaints, he described the department as acting without oversight, turning off comments on their social media channels and pushing out misinformation.

Orr, who has been a vocal critic of both the local and statewide response to the COVID-19 pandemic, said he decided to lobby commissioners after health officials allegedly erroneously told a relative that he tested positive for the coronavirus.

“You understand how this shakes the faith of the people in their health department during this global pandemic?” Orr asked commissioners.

Jennifer McCully, public health manager, flatly denied the allegations on Monday.

“That did not happen,” she said.

While not in the room during Orr’s statement, McCully said she had seen him repeat the accusations on Facebook.

“None of it happened,” she said.

Orr also later claimed on social media that the board ignored his plea, but County Commissioner Mark Peck (D-1) told Orr at the meeting that he would look into the matter for him.

As for Orr’s larger push — that the board either rein in the health department or overhaul it — commissioners offered little by way of response. Depending on the nature of the public comment, commissioners may have a back-and-forth conversation with a petitioner seeking redress, but they generally do not act on matters not on the agenda.

Orr petitioned the board as coronavirus cases spiked in Lincoln County, hitting new highs for the area. By the end of Oct. 7, officials confirmed 12 new cases in county, bringing the number of active cases over 50. Cases numbers have only continued to climb since.

Health officials across the state have increasingly come under fire from residents — and politicians — as the COVID-19 crisis has ebbed and flowed. Several resigned in the summer, including the health officer for Ravalli County, who stepped down in July citing differences with local elected officials.

In Powell County, the health officer resigned after a group of residents upset with the cancellation of a county fair allegedly confronted her at her medical practice.

The pandemic also has created rifts between localities and the state. Commissioners in Flathead County have pushed back against Gov. Steve Bullock’s assertion that they are not doing enough to implement his directives as cases there surge. In a prepared statement, commissioners upheld the right of residents to ignore Bullock’s controversial mask mandate, but simultaneously encouraged people in the county to follow recommendations made by the health officer. Wearing masks is one such recommendation.

In Lincoln County, commissioners have criticized Bullock’s measures as well as his office’s lack of responsiveness to local concerns. They also have panned Title 50 of the state code, which gives local health officials wide-ranging authority during a pandemic, but stopped well short of openly criticizing Public Health Officer Dr. Brad Black or his approach to the pandemic.

At the commissioners’ meeting, Orr said his remarks were borne out of concern that the health department was “failing at a time when we need people who will help this community.”

For his part, Orr has consistently criticized the health department and health board on local Facebook pages since the start of the pandemic, including accusing Black of profiteering. He also has described the pandemic as a hoax and argued that masks are harmful to wearers’ well being, even among healthy individuals.