Rodgers resigns from health board

Several loose ends remain at the Washington County Health Department following the removal of Health Commissioner Dr. Richard Wittberg last week and a tense board meeting Monday resulting in the resignation of a board member.

Board President Bruce Kelbaugh was confronted Monday by both Dr. Kenneth Leopold (county coroner and the board’s only physician member as required by law) and by Board Member Jim Rodgers about the dismissal — both calling the action unethical. But following Leopold’s initial resignation announcement the board went into executive session for more than an hour. Coming out of that executive session Leopold said he would remain on the board, but Rodgers left the meeting while it remained in executive session and said his resignation would remain in effect.

Wittberg was initially installed as health commissioner in 2013 after the board chose not to renew Dr. Kathleen Meckstroth’s contract after it expired in December 2012. At the time the board was instructed by the Ohio Department of Health that it must have a commissioner in place at the beginning of 2013 and needed a full-time commissioner installed by July 1 of that year.

Wittberg volunteered to fill that role and has remained in the position until last week.

“This is about power, not about the health of Washington County at all,” said Wittberg Monday.

The timing of the board’s vote to remove Wittberg (which was two members for, two members against — plus the third vote by the board president voting no confidence in Wittberg) begs the question of funding, since this is the time of year when township trustees are invoiced for their share of the second appropriation the health department draws from townships — semi-annual installments of $129,500 (in total assessed in fractions by property evaluation from the county auditor’s office).

“The finances of the department are well-managed but with accreditation and audit costs I had offered to serve as a volunteer commissioner,” explained Wittberg.

But Kelbaugh refused to say for the public meeting why Wittberg was asked to leave.

He said his instructions to Wittberg were not followed, but that he was “not at liberty to share those with you, they are documented.”

Wittberg had been working without a renewed contract for several months though will remain on the payroll, according to Kelbaugh, through the beginning of August, extending medical benefits through the end of August.

Meanwhile, the remaining 19 staff of the health department (nursing, environmental, preparedness and population) were left Monday expressing through the second in command their fears and concerns about the future of programming and services within the department.

“It was a shot against my employees’ morale,” said Director of Population Health Court Witschey, formerly Wittberg’s second in command. “There is fear that programs will be cut and that staff will be let go.”

Wittberg shared similar concerns Monday saying the programming at risk may include controversial initiatives like the needle exchange program, Tobacco 21 and studies into suicide and overdose.

“There are absolutely no plans to get rid of programs,” said Kelbaugh when Witschey voiced the concerns.

Kelbaugh also told the remaining board members and staff present following the executive session that he had spoken with a representative at the Ohio Department of Health and was guided that the department does not immediately have to have a new commissioner installed, but refused to share who offered that guidance.

In the meantime, food inspection certificates will need to have another name (potentially the board president’s) signed to them, and the department will advertise for resumes to fill the commissioner role.

Appointment of the commissioner requires a master’s degree related to public health.

The appointment to fill Rodgers’ vacant seat will be made by the district advisory council.

But according to Ohio Revised Code Chapter 3709.03 section B, appointments to the board “shall be made with due regard to equal representation of all parts of the district.”

As the district includes all of Washington County, Rodgers pointed out, that appointment may be further scrutinized by the Ohio Department of Health as all current board members of the health department reside in the same township — Belpre — with mailing addresses in either Belpre or Little Hocking.

Janelle Patterson can be reached at jpatterson@mariettatimes.com.