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Health board debates process for divvying up at-large seats

by DERRICK PERKINS
Daily Inter Lake | November 2, 2021 7:00 AM

Health board members broached the idea of cementing geographical preferences for at-large seats during an Oct. 19 work meeting, but failed to make much headway.

Debate over how best to divvy up the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners’ three appointees to the volunteer panel — by location, population, qualifications or some other metric — has popped up repeatedly during the pandemic. Commissioners tasked board members with clarifying the question in the group’s bylaws while giving a second at-large seat to a north Lincoln County resident last month.

On the eve of the pandemic, board membership tilted heavily toward Libby and south Lincoln County. All three at-large members hailed from in and around the county seat while the Libby-area county commissioner served as his colleagues’ liaison to the group. Coupled with the representatives from Libby and Troy, that left just one member of the seven-person panel from the Eureka area.

The push for more representation from north Lincoln County emerged from residents who previously launched failed efforts to see the health board disbanded and the county health officer removed in response to pandemic restrictions in 2020. Commissioners, though unable — and unwilling — to unilaterally purge the board, were open to a rebalance.

Mark Peck, then the county commissioner for Libby, departed the board of health in favor of his colleague, Josh Letcher of Eureka. Not long after, at-large member George Jamison, a Libby area resident, resigned to open his seat up for a north Lincoln County resident. Commissioners selected former Eureka Town Councilor Scott Bernhard for the spot, which he left in May. Over the summer, Patricia Kincheloe, also from north Lincoln County, was tapped to replace Bernhard.

The reshuffle gave the Eureka area three seats on the panel — though Letcher maintains he represents the county as a whole — until Dr. Sara Mertes of Libby died in a plane crash in August. Although the position was advertised with a south Lincoln County candidate in mind, commissioners signaled earlier this month that geographic considerations — unless enshrined in the board’s bylaws — would now take a backseat.

Along with hailing from opposite sides of the county, the two blocs have offered differing views on how the handle the pandemic with members from Libby and Troy pushing for more active measures. Troy representative Jim Seifert, for example, frequently spars with Eureka representative Debra Armstrong over the role of vaccinations in public health.

While south Lincoln County board members, past and present, were supportive of giving the Eureka area more influence, their northern neighbors looked less kindly upon any effort to go in the other direction.

“I don’t think we’re going to be able to agree on that,” Armstrong said of equal geographical representation on the board when Libby representative Amy Fantozzi raised the question last week.

Armstrong pointed to the historic imbalance toward Libby and Troy as one reason why Eureka’s ascendance was overdue. Past board members have noted, though, that historically the northern portion of the county has yielded few applicants.

“Everybody is upset about it now because Libby doesn’t have the majority,” she told Fantozzi. “I was the only member [from Eureka] for several years.”

In an allusion to Dr. Dianna Carvey, who commissioners selected to succeed Mertes, Armstrong said she wanted to see the county’s top elected officials weigh qualifications foremost.

“I think the commissioners ought to appoint the very best candidate that they can find regardless [of location] that can benefit the whole entire community,” she said.

“That’s your opinion,” said Seifert of Carvey’s credentials. “That’s not my opinion.”

Seifert had backed Dr. Gregory Rice of Libby to take Mertes’ seat. A respected physician in Libby, Rice has advocated for a more hands on approach to the pandemic and encouraged vaccinations, earning derision from critics of public health measures.

Sticking to geographical concerns, Fantozzi worried that the makeup of the board had shifted disproportionately northward.

“They asked for, and we wanted, more representation for north Lincoln County,” Fantozzi said. “Now it feels like it has gone the other way.”

Assigning seats to the districts used to divvy up the board of commissioners also appeared problematic. The Troy district runs to the outskirts of Libby and the Eureka district descends past Warland Creek Road. That means all three at-large board members could still consider Libby the closest hub.

Population considerations faired little better. While Seifert estimated the bulk of the county’s residents resided in the Libby and Troy areas, Letcher rejected the assertion.

“My speculation is that we’re not quite half of the population, but we’re pretty close,” Letcher said.

He proposed that the bylaws call for a preference from each of the three districts with the seat opening up if a call for applicants in one area met with crickets. Although Letcher has proposed recently allowing a representative from Rexford — as it has a town council — he made no mention of the addition during the Oct. 20 conversation.

Despite his earlier disagreement with Armstrong, Seifert joined her in arguing that commissioners should be free to pick any qualified individual in the county. They ought to strive for geographical fairness, though, he said.

“They should balance both and I think they should have the option to do that,” Seifert said.

Board members ultimately ended the evening without any indication that a change to the bylaws would appear on a future agenda. The board takes no action during work meetings.