Local officials are taking steps to discipline St. Clair County’s chief health officer over what they felt were communication issues in rolling out recent COVID-19 masking rules in schools.
On Thursday night, county commissioners agreed to enable County Administrator Karry Hepting to draft a censure letter against Dr. Annette Mercatante, who has the statutory authority to issue health mandates.
A draft censure measure would be up for approval at board members’ next meeting in February, and officials said a final copy will be included in Mercatante’s employee file.
It’s the latest action amid widespread pushback from residents over this month’s public health order requiring facial coverings in K-12 educational settings through Jan. 28. County board members allege the mandate was unveiled in late December in a manner that defied an earlier promise for more transparency after a previous order’s controversy in 2021.
“We’ve gotten very little to no negative comments about the doctor’s running the (St. Clair County Health) Department until we got into the health orders. This has caused 99% of issues with that department,” said Commissioner Dave Vandenbossche, who serves on the committee formed two weeks ago to review Mercatante’s position with fellow board members Lisa Beedon and Dave Rushing.
Despite some residents’ call to oust Mercatante, officials reiterated that they can’t legally reverse her order, nor fire her outright. Censure was, instead, one of four options presented Thursday by that committee to address concerns over the health department official’s authority.
“I’m a true believer in progressive discipline, and we haven’t disciplined her,” Vandenbossche said. “As a good manager, you’ve got to build a case against them to actually let someone go. … It’s definitely an employees’ market, and it’s going to be tough to let someone go over one issue. In that case, I would like to see us censure, to actually start the discipline process with her. Then, move forward.”
The decision to pursue a censure was unanimous among present commissioners. County Board Chairman Jeff Bohm was absent.
Rushing said the other three options were maintaining the status quo, splitting Mercatante’s combined position as both St. Clair County’s medical and public health officer, or waiting to address the job when her contract is up this June.
The fourth disciplinary choice, he said, arose in discussion from Beedon, the board’s only Democrat.
“I view the issue as a communication issue, so that to me is an employee-employer problem,” Beedon said.
Answering other questions
Rather than on the intricacies of the mask order, commissioners’ discussion on Thursday focused more on the process to issue health orders, whether they’re consulted beforehand, and addressing questions about what would happen if Mercatante’s job was suddenly open.
Beedon said there is an existing internal succession plan in the event Mercatante exits her position or if it suddenly became vacant. But officials said they could also contract with a neighboring county’s health officer to temporarily cover it.
Commissioner Greg McConnell said he had hoped officials would recruit a couple of board members with some from the county’s health advisory board or county administration to act as a sounding board before anything was done about Mercatante’s position.
And he added, “I think we need to start preparing ourselves to post this position. I think it’s going to be a hard (job) to fill.”
Earlier this month, Hepting told board members that whether they ultimately opt to separate Mercatante’s positions or oust her, the jobs would have to be posted with enough time to submit a future candidate and their credentials to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for approval.
When commissioners return for committee meetings on Feb. 3, Rushing said he wanted to request bidding out Mercatante’s roles to be on the health and human services agenda so they can “see what sort of response they get.” However, no other formal consensus was reached.
Multiple residents asked commissioners why or how long Mercatante had two positions in the first place. Beedon said St. Clair was one of two counties in the state with that setup.
“Just for a historical point of view, that was put into place (roughly 10) years ago before she took the position. So, the board at that time decided to combine the role,” she said. “… The county was facing budget issues, and so they were able to save money, taxpayer dollars, by combining the positions.”
Multiple officials asked if they could legally outline a communication process for potential mandates before they’re issued, recalling the health department’s quarantine order last year and the succeeding conversation about briefing commissioners.
Rushing said the sudden announcement of the masking order was “not acceptable,” and he called its occurrence under Mercatante “insubordination” — mirroring a common talking point made by some residents, including during Thursday’s public comment period that lasted more than two hours.
Gary Fletcher, the county’s attorney, told commissioners that “a promise was made you would be informed and would be provided information that supported a mandate,” adding, “You’ve got a big problem” if that isn’t happening.
Although they couldn’t diminish her power or invalidate an order, they could, indeed, set up a process, he said. Such a process to communicate orders, he said, would apply to the county’s non-elected health officer and emergency manager positions.
Mercatante was not present Thursday — the result of a consensus of preference among board members, according to Beedon, rather than the more controversial absence alleged by public commenters.
“She would get talked over and she would incite you guys," Vandenbossche said. "… I don’t know why one person should have to take that.”
The board next meets at 6 p.m. on Feb. 3 at the Blue Water Convention Center, 800 Harker St. Agendas are made available at http://publicagenda.stclaircounty.org.
Contact Jackie Smith at (810) 989-6270 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Jackie20Smith.
This article originally appeared on Port Huron Times Herald: County board moves to discipline Mercatante over communication of COVID order