'I didn't want to leave the county': Graham Briggs says he had to choose between a demotion or resign

·5 min read

Dec. 4—Olmsted County's former public health director says he didn't want to leave the post he led for three years.

"I didn't want to leave the county. I had no plans to leave the county," Graham Briggs said. His resignation was made public in mid-November.

He said he was told after returning from an October vacation that he wouldn't be able to remain in his role leading the county's public health department.

At that time, he said he was put on paid leave, which was being offered to public health employees as respite from stress related to the pandemic.

Briggs had been the primary voice for the county's COVID-19 response, which Associate Director Denise Daniels said was an intentional effort.

"We were very fortunate that Graham had an (epidemiological) background in a pandemic," she said. "None of us worked through a pandemic before."

Briggs, who joined the county after years of epidemiological work in Arizona, said it remains unclear to him why county administration decided he needed to step down from the leadership post or where the idea originated.

He said he was given the option of taking another position in the department or resigning.

"What I was told is I had lost the department," he said. He was told the county was going to go in a different direction with the position, he said.

He said most of his related conversations were with County Administrator Heidi Welsch but his direct supervisor, Deputy County Administrator Travis Gransee, was also involved.

Asked about Briggs' sudden departure, Gransee, who oversees the division that includes public health, restated the official news release that was issued Nov. 17.

"Graham has resigned from his position at Olmsted County," he said, adding that answers regarding the decisions would best be provided by Briggs.

"I think every time an employee separates, the situation is unique," he said, "and I'd say Graham's situation is like everyone else's — it's unique."

Briggs did not deny resigning was his decision, saying that it was preferable to accepting a demotion within the department.

"My biggest concern with that was not ego or anything," he said. "It was that if I was going to be in the health department, how could a new director come in and succeed with the old director standing there, reporting to him and saying, 'This is what we should do.'"

County Board Chairwoman Stephanie Podulke said commissioners were informed of the resignation on the day it was announced.

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"We didn't know until that moment what his decision was," she said of an unscheduled closed meeting held during budget discussions.

She said she was aware prior to the announcement that Briggs was fatigued from months of pandemic response, which the former director said involved countless hours of overtime. She said she understood that was his reason for leaving.

"I think, just like all kinds of people right now, he's just burned out from the pandemic," she said at the time. "He just needs to catch his breath."

Asked about the decision on the day of the announcement, Welsch spoke highly of Briggs and said he has opportunities for future employment, without providing details.

"Graham remains a trusted leader for our entire community," she said in the statement announcing his resignation. "Not only did he lead our county's COVID response efforts, but he also oversaw other essential public health activities that continued throughout the pandemic."

Briggs said job opportunities are likely to take him away from Olmsted County.

Still, he said he's felt support from city and county officials, as well as former coworkers, since the announcement was made.

He said he's confident in the public health staff's dedication to COVID response, which he said is crucial.

"I am proud the work we did, and I think it's put us in a position to recover economically more quickly, and in the process we've saved — depending on how you look at the numbers — hundreds or thousands of lives in this community with the hard work the staff in that department did," he said.

No timeline has been set to hire a replacement for Briggs. The department is being overseen by Daniels and her fellow associate director, Michael Melius.

In a statement released Friday morning in response to questions posed to Welsch, Olmsted County administration echoed Briggs support of the public health staff and pointed to continued efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The leadership change in OCPHS has in no way impacted our response activities related to the pandemic. In fact, our COVID response is as strong now as it has ever been," the response stated, without addressing Briggs' comments about being given a choice between taking a new position or resigning.

The response cited an existing qualified public health leadership team that is assisted by knowledgeable, talented staff dedicated to providing COVID-19 vaccines to the public and working with schools and businesses in the county to offer guidance and support.

"We understand we still have a tremendous amount of work before us in this pandemic, and we remain dedicated to this county's COVID response," the administration response stated. "We will continue leading and serving the community through this pandemic every step of the way."

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