Libby City Council selects health board rep
Amy Fantozzi at Libby City Council in March, 2021. (Derrick Perkins/The Western News)
Daily Inter Lake | March 19, 2021 7:00 AM
Libby City Councilors appointed Amy Fantozzi of the Western Montana Mental Health Center as the municipality’s representative to the county health board March 15.
Fantozzi, one of seven to apply for the open seat, was selected in a 5-1 vote. City Councilor Rob Dufficy cast the lone dissenting vote.
During the interview process, Fantozzi pointed to her experience with mental health as a potential boon for the county panel. County health department officials had recently told city councilors that the board would benefit from the addition of an individual from that field.
“I feel like mental health is not as much of a focus as it should be in our community,” said Fantozzi. “You have physical health, environmental health and quality assurance people [on the health board], but nobody really who is an expert in mental health.”
Questioned by city councilors, Fantozzi said professionals had seen an increase in mental health problems since the beginning of the pandemic. Across the nation, she said, a spike in substance abuse and drug overdoses had been overshadowed by COVID-19.
“Definitely, there has been an increase in mental health issues and struggles and a really big increase in substance use and abuse [in the county],” Fantozzi told city councilors.
As a member of the county’s mental health coalition, Fantozzi also boasted experience working with the health board.
Fantozzi was a relatively recent applicant for the position. She was not among the candidates that emerged by city council’s Feb. 16 meeting, the date by which they originally planned to make an appointment.
Faced with just three applicants, city councilors opted to extend the application deadline and pledged to redouble their efforts to find acceptable candidates. At the time, they cited the intense community interest in the position as well as its importance to the municipality given the aftereffects of decades of vermiculite mining in the area.
The move to appoint Fantozzi broke with the prevailing sentiment expressed by residents, who turned out in droves for the March 15 meeting. Time and again, residents — from in and around Libby — asked city councilors to favor business owners and laypeople over white-collar professionals.
Business owner Marcus Girod warned that too many medical professionals could lead to groupthink. He also worried that a board of professionals would overlook residents without higher education. It was not fair that a doctor or a lawyer could decide that he could go without work for months on end, Girod said.
“I just feel like when you have in … one group, lets say all doctors on the board, on the one board, they all will make a fairly general [and similar] decision,” he said. “Unfortunately when that happens you have a streamline of decisions that affect a certain population.”
Others cited what they saw as the loss of personal freedom during the pandemic. Resident Joe Coblentz said the mere mention of Dr. Brad Black’s name raised red flags for him. Black is the county health officer who last year issued local orders largely corresponding to statewide directives concerning the pandemic.
“We’ve been imposed on and [they have been] pushing the masks when there was no need for us to wear masks; we just like our liberty and freedom of speech,” Coblentz said.
Resident Katrina Newton, a member of a resident group that lobbied county commissioners last year to dismiss the health board or appoint members who would oust Black, offered her own set of criteria. The appointee ought to be a business owner, she said, and not one who had refused to serve supporters of former President Donald Trump. Lawyers and medical professionals already have too much of a voice on the board, she said. Newton also said active members of Team56, a local group founded last year to promote simple pandemic measures, should be removed from consideration.
“We’re here because the seat impacts all of Lincoln County,” she said. “I’m working with a bunch of people who want to have more diversity on the board. I’m speaking on behalf a lot of people, a lot of people on the north end [of the county].”
Many in attendance mistakenly credited the county health board with shuttering businesses and imposing pandemic restrictions in the past year. While the board has debated the county’s response to the coronavirus at length, the economic shutdown last year came by order of then Gov. Steve Bullock.
Black issued several local health orders last year, but they largely mirrored the state’s directives. His major alteration was omitting a case count threshold for the mask mandate. Black lifted his local order in early January, well ahead of Gov. Greg Gianforte.
City Councilor Kristin Smith took issue with a few of the more accusatory comments, calling attacks on the applicants and the county’s health officials frustrating. A business owner, Smith blamed the pandemic, rather than the health board, with putting a crimp on sales. Letting the coronavirus run through the community unchecked would have been worse for small businesses, she said.
“Protecting public health protects economic health,” Smith said. “If a community is sick and dying, we have no employees and no customers.”
Of the seven applicants, five made city council’s shortlist: attorney Ann German, Tracy McNew of the Center for Asbestos Related Disease, resident Ken Crandell, former City Councilor DC Orr and Fantozzi. City councilors voted on each in quick succession.
Councilors split evenly over German and McNew. Orr earned two votes, from Dufficy and City Councilor Hugh Taylor, despite falsely accusing city councilors of meeting secretly with the health board chair last month. Crandell, meanwhile, earned four votes.
Mayor Brent Teske thanked the candidates and members of the public for attending the meeting in such large numbers.