Letter to the Editor: To the board of Rio Grande County commissioners

To the editor,

The firing of Emily Brown, Director of the Rio Grande County Health Department, is shocking and appalling. That the Board of Rio Grande County Commissioners chose to take this action in the midst of a public health crisis is unconscionable. The Board must provide answers to several questions.
The timing of this action to terminate Ms. Brown is in question. Here’s why: According to the schedule of meetings available on the BOCC’s website, a special meeting of the County Board of Health was held on May 19, 2020. The posted agenda included two items: discussion of a public health order and an executive session to discuss legal advice on an unspecified topic and personnel matters. Another executive session was then held on May 22, 2020, but it is unclear if this was an executive session of the BOCC or the Board of Health. This executive session was not part of an open meeting and no agenda was posted for this meeting. It was on this day that the termination of Ms. Brown was announced. According to Colorado state statutes, executive sessions must be opened within a public meeting. While executive sessions can be held to discuss personnel matters, any decisions made in executive sessions must be voted on in a public meeting of the Board. How could Ms. Brown be fired during a Board of Health meeting, when she was not an employee of the Board of Health? The next regular meeting of the BOCC was scheduled for May 27, 2020. So, how could a decision have been made to terminate Ms. Brown on May 22, when it could not have been voted on until the May 27 regular meeting of the BOCC?

Was Ms. Brown notified of the executive session and given the opportunity to have the issues discussed in public? This is a right of County employees. If Ms. Brown was not afforded this opportunity, this was clearly not transparent.

In an article published in the May 27, 2020, edition of the Monte Vista Journal, Commissioner John Noffsker alluded to the notion that the BOCC was not provided with accurate data regarding the coronavirus in the county. What data was not provided? Does the BOCC believe that the number of confirmed cases published daily is too high or too low? What other data does the BOCC believe it needs, and how will the Board go about collecting it now? How will this data be used to the benefit of the county?

Commissioner Noffsker said that a plan has been devised to allow two public health department nurses to work eight hours a day on COVID-19 testing and tracing, “leaving other less urgent tasks to the remainder of the staff.” What efforts are being made by the BOCC to provide increased testing, especially as it is essential to coordinate with other local health care entities who have so far taken on testing needs for the Valley? Will additional staff be hired to conduct contact tracing? What, specifically, are the other “less urgent” Public Health tasks, in light of the fact that a majority of the public health department budget is funded by state and federal grants that require specific work to be undertaken? It is frightening to think that flu clinics provided in the past by the public health department might be considered less urgent. Would a tuberculosis outbreak be considered less urgent?

Commissioner Noffsker said the BOCC wants to keep our communities safe. Is it safe to open up our area to thousands of tourists from outside the Valley? Clearly, the county’s economy needs to open up, but is this the safest way to do it? Without a knowledgeable Public Health official, who will provide guidance to promote the safety of our county? And who will monitor the county to make sure that the terms of the recent variance of the state Safer at Home order are being followed?
In January, the Rio Grande County Board of Health was reconfigured to include only the Board of County Commissioners. Is this allowable under state statute? Doesn’t this reduce the input of experts and board members who specifically provide advice on public health concerns? It has not been clear during this pandemic when the Commissioners are acting as the Board of Health and when they are speaking as the BOCC. When these two roles are confused, how can our community be sure the Commissioners are acting in the interest of our health, rather than from economic concerns or political pressure?

Finally, it is deeply concerning that from the beginning of this public health crisis, our Board of County Commissioners has not offered one word of assurance or compassion to our communities. We have not heard from the Board directly, and this is certainly neither transparent nor comforting.
The Rio Grande County Board of County Commissioners must answer these questions immediately and publicly. This health crisis is far from over and now, thanks to the actions of the BOCC, it has been exacerbated. The citizens of the Rio Grande County deserve better than this.

Mona Syring, 852-2547
Rio de la Vista, 850-2255
Laura Metz-Velasquez, 719-221-2548
Jenny Nehring, 719-480-0872
Scott Capron, 303-949-1442
Suzanne Gosar
Karla Shriver, 850-5808
Rebecca Fincham, 719-496-9099
Milcah Hawk, 719-849-1954
Randi Young, 970-948-2859
Terry Young, 970-948-6649
Carolyn David, 719-850-1669
Tom Tichy, 719-849-1954
Barb Deacon, 719-850-2616
Craig Rogers
Suzanne Beauchaine, 719-480-1820
Jeannine Willett, 719-850-3310
John McEvoy, 719-657-9254
Mettje Swift, 657-2967
Bethany Howell
Elaine Regan, 505-401-4791
Courtney Hurst, 970-420-7940
Keri Brandt Off, 970-903-8782
Laura Conchelos
Lois Harvie, 505-450-5593
Amy Engle
Maryjane Rhett, 360-8731
James Rhett 719-360-8732
Liza Marron 719-539-5606