Commissioners will move forward with health board inquiry

The hiring of Roger Coffman as the Washington County Health Department administrator was discussed during the Washington County Commission meeting Thursday morning.

Bruce Kelbaugh, president of the Washington County Board of Health, met with commissioners and immediately wanted to go into executive session to discuss personnel, but the request was denied.

“They’re not our personnel,” said Commissioner Ron Feathers.

Kelbaugh said the state auditor suggested going into executive session to discuss the personnel issue, as he had documentation to show.

Commission President David White said they would have to know the reason why.

“I want to clear this up to where you folks have no question in your mind about whether it was done legally and for the right causes,” Kelbaugh said.

White said if it were to discuss the discipline of an employee, they could go into executive session, but the commission isn’t in the position to make any decisions on health department or board of health personnel.

Feathers said the board has the right to hire or fire whoever they wanted, he was just concerned about the process leading up to any hiring, as well as open meeting laws.

Coffman being named administrator wasn’t the only action at the board of health meeting Tuesday. Washington County Health Commissioner Dick Wittberg gave the board his resignation after the board denied the contract renewal of the certification, training and federal paperwork oversight over the Americorps program. Wittberg was serving on temporary appointment after being forced out of a full-time role in July.

“(We’re concerned about ) just what we’re hearing from the public,” Feathers said. “Nobody knows anything for sure. Even in your statement in the press last week, and it was your statement, that you hired somebody (Coffman) because somebody told you to.”

Kelbaugh read a list of reasons why it was in the best interest of the health department to hire Coffman.

“(He) lets the staff know where we are headed. There’s been a vacuum down there for way too long,” he said. “They don’t know where they are going, who’s going to lead or whatever.”

He said Coffman was recommended by a highly respected Washington County official who is “totally non-partisan.” He said Coffman also has environmental health experience.

“He has years of budget and management experience as a sanitarian and has managed many, many, many people at one time,” Kelbaugh said. “He has very strong leadership. He was appointed by the (District Advisory Council), but due to political reasons, that didn’t happen.”

Kelbaugh said since then, Coffman has attended all but one of the board of health meetings, “so he sees all the employees at the management level, and the commissioner, interact with us, so he knows what’s going on.”

“Those are reasons, not because somebody told me I should hire him,” Kelbaugh added.

He said that he was still willing to go into executive session to show them documentation.

“What would be the purpose of it, so you would show us why you let Dr. Wittberg go?” Feathers asked.

“So you wouldn’t have to investigate us,” Kelbaugh replied.

The commissioners intend to have a special prosecutor look into the operations of the health board, after the firing of Wittberg without a known reason and other recent resignations.

“It’s not about why you let anybody go. It’s about process. It’s about meetings in the parking lot,” Feathers said. “It’s all this stuff we’re hearing. I don’t even want to get involved in this, but we’re hearing such an outcry from ordinary citizens, it’s like, what’s going on? At the end of the day, we keep getting board members resigning and so, it’s like, guys, please, tell us what’s going on and then, we got nothing. Or very little.”

He said the commission was willing to spend the $3,000 mentioned at last week’s commission meeting on the special prosecutor not to look for criminal actions of the board, but to find out what steps were excluded or skipped over.

“Maybe everything was done fine, but I believe the citizens deserve an answer to what’s going on with the chaos that has ensued over the last several months at the health district,” Feathers said.

He told Kelbaugh that the board may have had its reasons for removing Wittberg, and that he didn’t need to know why, but he wants to make sure the proper process was followed.

In a statement read at the meeting, Commissioner Kevin Ritter said in an effort to help the health board determine how to improve their own internal operations, he joined the other commissioners in setting aside up to $3,000 to hire outside counsel to conduct an inquiry, not an investigation, into some of the recent events. He said he was hopeful that the inquiry, conducted by an impartial, outside attorney, might help identify areas of improvement.

“That truly is my motivation,” he said, noting that if the commissioners put out a statement saying they were satisfied by what the board brought to them, there was potential for the public to say they were all working together.

“What I think will go a long way toward increasing public confidence is that word from an outside counsel,” Ritter said.

Michele Newbanks can be reached at mnewbanks@mariettatimes.com