Commissioners hear from health board president

Washington County Board of Health President Bruce Kelbaugh met with Washington County Commissioners Thursday morning to address questions they’ve had about recent actions of the health board.

The health board has been in an upheaval since early July when Dr. Richard Wittberg was removed from his position as health commissioner by the health board with no reason evident in his personnel file or in meeting minutes. Board member Jim Rodgers resigned as a result. Last week, Court Witschey, director of population health with the Washington County Health Department resigned after 16 years with the department.

After Wittberg was removed from office and Rodgers resigned, Commissioner Kevin Ritter asked for transparency from the board, as there were many questions that were not being answered. When nothing appeared to change, Commissioner Ron Feathers asked for an investigation by the Washington County Prosecutor Nicole Coil into the practices of the board.

On Thursday, each commissioner was able to ask questions of Kelbaugh, who has been on the board for two years and was voted in as president in April.

“To be honest with you, I knew nothing about the District Advisory Council, the health board, all the (Ohio Revised Code). I’ve read the ORC probably 80 hours in the last month,” Kelbaugh said at Thursday’s meeting.

He said he has recently visited other health boards to see their practices and brought them back to Washington County, some of which have been adopted. He said Marietta College had a couple of classes on how to serve on boards, which he went to, along with classes on Robert’s Rules of Order. He said after he went to the classes at Marietta College, he made packets for each of the board members.

“Here’s a way to concentrate on what’s coming at us and not regurgitate everything that’s been behind us,” he explained.

He said no one had told him when he joined the board what he was getting into.

“When I went on the board, nobody said to me ‘Bruce, there are problems that need to be addressed.’ This needs to be fixed, that needs to be fixed. And when I got on the board and started attending meetings, I went ‘whoa,'” he said. “I saw things that needed to be addressed and quite honestly, probably Dr. Wittberg hasn’t had a contract signed since 2016. I’m not sure if it was that meeting or the year after, when there was a number of the DAC that recommended at our meeting that we not renew his contract.”

Kelbaugh said he hadn’t been there long enough to act on their recommendation and he wanted to give everyone a chance.

“I wanted to see another year’s worth of performance,” he added. “But after a couple of years, the majority of the board voted for new management. New direction. My only public statement was that ‘the majority of the board of health employees have opted for new leadership. We wish Dr. Wittberg well.”

He noted that Wittberg has not been reinstated, but he was given a 90-day contract to finish up a couple of grants that he said only he knew how to complete.

The commissioners did not ask Kelbaugh why Wittberg was fired, as they said they felt it was a personnel issue that would have taken them into executive session. Feathers said they don’t have any power to supercede any decisions of the health board.

The commissioners questioned Kelbaugh about future plans for the health board, as well as how the board and health department have been operating recently.

According to Kelbaugh, many of the issues the board has stems from a lack of information from the health department.

During the questioning, Ritter asked for Kelbaugh’s assessment and whether the health department is giving good service to people of the county.

Kelbaugh hesitated before saying, “Yeah, I think the health department, especially with Court and the population health, has done a lot of great things and are doing a lot of great things. The services that are provided, I don’t think, in my opinion, are being questioned.”

Ritter asked Kelbaugh what sort of planning is being done for the future. Kelbaugh said he asked the board leadership to put together a three-year plan, as five years was too far out, but the plan has never happened.

“I’m used to doing that in industry, and it doesn’t mean it’s cut in stone, but at least you know what to change when it’s not the right thing,” Kelbaugh said of a three-year plan. “Pretty much, the board meetings have been responding to ‘this has to be acted on and if it’s not approved tonight, the sun’s not going to come up tomorrow.’ We’ve always been under pressure to get this and this done and if there’s a question about something that we wanted to address, by the time next month comes, the fire hose has done took us down and we didn’t get to that and it’s on to something else.”

He said there were times when he felt the board was being held hostage.

“For example, and I’m talking more than I should, but I suggested that they needed a new software package for finances. They were doing everything with Excel spreadsheets that were developed out of Marietta College,” he explained. “We got that package in that they wanted and it was on the agenda to have it approved at the next month’s meeting. Well, we get there that night and it was pointed out to us that that was a mistake and it had to be approved that night or we can’t get it implemented in June and July. That was two years ago and we’re still having problems. Last year wasn’t closed out until probably March.”

Ritter stated that what he’s hearing from Kelbaugh is that the board has been more reactive with things pressing at the moment instead of being proactive in planning for the future.

“Uh, I would personally probably agree with that,” Kelbaugh said.

Ritter said it seemed like Kelbaugh would rather establish a plan for the future and Kelbaugh answered “absolutely.”

“We shouldn’t be…our job is policy, not administration,” Kelbaugh said. “There are a lot of things that can be done to make the health department more efficient, not necessarily providing services, but using less people resources to accomplish what needs to be done.”

He said time cards are filled out by hand, then someone enters it in, then someone else checks it to make sure it’s correct and then sends it to the auditor.

“I’ve been talking with other health commissioners, trying to find a package where you can come in in the morning, log in, it keeps tracks of your time and it would automate payroll,” he said, adding the data entry was like 1950s in his mind.

Ritter asked about having a medical doctor on the board.

“I’ll be honest with you, Commissioner Ritter, it’s not because that’s not my responsibility, but the district advisory committee is the person who would find a replacement. If you have a health commissioner that’s a medical doctor, then you don’t need a medical director,” he said. “So right now, we have a medical director (Dr. David Avery) who, according to ORC, reports to the board, but I haven’t seen him in two and a half years. So if you can find a health commissioner that’s a doctor, then you don’t have to pay a health director, which we’re doing now.”

Dr. Avery provides medical authorization of standing orders for the nursing department, and is not required to be at any of the board meetings.

Feathers also asked about the vision the board has going forward.

“I heard a lot of stuff about the software, but is the actual health board itself, is there anything you can speak into that about the processes, or something as simple as ‘is someone going to replace Court Witschey?'” Feathers said.

“This is my personal opinion. When I went to all the other board of health meetings, I saw different models and the one I liked the best was Athens,” Kelbaugh said. “They have a full-time administrator and a part-time health commissioner, who is a doctor and only works a few hours a week to address any medical issues. That’s my vision, whether I can convince the rest of the board and we can find the appropriate people, I’m not sure. I personally have a strategic direction, but I can’t speak for the board.”

Feathers then asked who was in charge and Kelbaugh hesitated before answering, “right now, Court is day-to-day. He hasn’t been given any official powers. We voted to make him the designee for bonding and there’s been an issue over bonding that’s been going on for two or three or four weeks.”

Kelbaugh said he found out there was no bonding and “I don’t even know if we have liability insurance. We’ve been trying to chase that down. Dr. (Richard) Wittberg is still the health commissioner.”

Feathers confirmed with Kelbaugh that Witschey is currently in charge, in conjunction with Wittberg, but Witschey’s last day is Tuesday.

“That’s why I want to get an administrator in place. I don’t want there to be a vacuum there with no leadership,” Kelbaugh said. “I will tell you, from my vantage point, it has been very difficult to get information that we need to make decisions. Pay raises are on the agenda and Dr. Wittberg says we can no longer afford to pay them out of the general budget. Then, I have an email from Court that says ‘do you really want to move forward looking at a health commissioner until you review the budget’ and that scares me. It’s something I want to do at the next meeting. Very, very difficult to get answers.”

It was unclear after Thursday’s meeting, whether there will be an investigation into the board.

“The board of commissioners hasn’t discussed it and we haven’t received Nicole’s written or verbal statement about what she can and can’t do. At this point, I don’t know if it’ll go to special counsel or if she can do it herself,” Feathers said.

After last week’s meeting when Feathers asked for Coil to investigation, she said she would be happy to mediate, but as the health board is also a client, it would be a conflict of interest.

Commission President David White questioned the mandatory time off by health department employees.

“The first year I came on the board, there was vacation that wasn’t taken. They wanted a payout for it, because if you don’t take it by a certain time, you lose it. I think we may have gone ahead and did the payout and we told them we wouldn’t do that again, that they’d need to take their vacation,” Kelbaugh explained. “Next year, they wanted the same thing and I believe we said no. This year, they wanted it again and we said ‘hey listen, that amounts to a pay raise and we can’t afford to do that. You need to take your vacation.’ If they say they’re under stress, that’s what vacations are for. Take your vacation and try to get rid of some stress.”

“There is a list of about 30 things that I have in my mind that need to be…and we don’t have any (human resources) support. We need to get HR support,.”

Kelbaugh said the board’s by-laws need to be changed, as they are not current. He said the department’s job descriptions and personnel policies are also not current, which is something the HR director could help them with, along with looking at resumes and hiring personnel.

“There are a lot of things we’ve got to look into, but you’ve got to make sure the day-to-day stuff is getting done before you can get to the strategic things.” Kelbaugh said.

Feathers said after the meeting that the questions he had, he felt Kelbaugh answered.

Commissioner David White said his perception is that the state is moving toward regionalization of health boards and asked if the board was doing anything to prepare if that happens.

“It’s in our benefit to make sure we are the region here, and not sending our people to Athens or somewhere else,” White said.

Kelbaugh said the board has not talked about it, but someone from Columbus had visited the county health department and told Witschey that the current facility is the most unsecure health department he’d ever seen.

“Because I’ve been in corporate security, I’ve been pushing for that to get that straightened out,” he added.

He said he has notes where Wittberg said they would never be able to have security in the building. Kelbaugh said he arranged tours to look through the building and “if they look at that building over there, we’re screwed.”

“I went in one day and was told the employees are having headaches and they don’t feel good. There’s water and mold in the basement,” he said. “There are wild animals that get in there. So I asked for a tour and the cat urine is so strong down there that you can’t breathe. I’m being candid and I’m trying to be transparent.”

In the last few months, he’s been reading up on the ORC and now applies it to his decisions.

“I have read a lot of ORC and I try to make sure I don’t do something stupid,” he said. “I make sure there’s Ohio Revised Code that supports every action that I promote.”

Feathers said the commissioners will sit down and discuss what each of them heard in the meeting and then go from there on whether or not to continue to ask for an investigation.

Michele Newbanks can be reached at mnewbanks@mariettatimes.com.

Washington County Board of Health requirements:

• One member must have a medical degree, such as a physician, veterinarian or dentist.

• Four of the appointments are made by the District Advisory Council.

• One appointment, and an alternate, is appointed by the Licensing Council.

• Members serve five-year terms with a position coming open each year.

Source: Times Research.