Tensions? What Tensions? 

Health Board, county commissioners kiss and make up; say former health director was lone outsider

Never mind that, just a few months ago, members of the El Paso County Board of Health complained of poor relations with the Board of County Commissioners. And never mind that commissioners accused the Health Board of being fiscally irresponsible.

There never were any tensions between the two boards, commissioners and Health Board members now say.

The about-face has prompted an attorney for the Health Department's former director, Dr. Tisha Dowe, to suggest that the two political bodies, formerly distrustful of one another, are now presenting a united front to protect themselves against a lawsuit threatened by Dowe, who was fired by the Health Board in February.

And moves by the chairman of the commissioners, Tom Huffman, support the notion that the two boards are engaging in a deliberate display of harmony.

Tale of two boards

The boards kissed and made up during a joint meeting on June 5, in which the Board of Health said it was reversing a previous decision to seek greater independence from the county government.

By state law, the Health Board is autonomous. However, county commissioners appoint the board's members, and the county contributes about one-third of the Health Department's budget. In the past, the Health Department has also received payroll services and health-benefits administration from the county.

Late last year, the Health Department decided to obtain separate payroll services and health benefits. Dowe led the move, arguing it would save the department money and better suit its needs. But county staff fiercely opposed the move and fought with Dowe, telling her she was incorrect about the potential savings.

Huffman sided with county staff and began to publicly criticize the Health Department, questioning its spending levels and accusing it of promoting "socialized medicine."

Unhappy with the Board of Health's direction, county commissioners in February refused to reappoint one of the board's members, Dr. Jack Dillon, whose term was expiring. The move drew objections from other Health Board members and from the El Paso County Medical Society. Documents obtained by the Independent in March, under the Colorado Open Records Act, also showed that county staff members who had fought Dowe recruited and coached new applicants to serve on the Health Board.

The same month, the Health Board fired Dowe without explanation. Dowe has since filed a notice of claim against Health Department and county officials, saying she was harassed and ultimately fired for refusing to take marching orders from county staff.

"No dialogue whatsoever"

Now, Health Board members say Dowe was wrong, and county staff members were right, all along -- the Health Department would save money and receive better services if it returns to the county's payroll and benefits administration. In their joint meeting last week, the Health Board and the county commissioners informally agreed to make such a move.

Health Board President Royann Killoren said the reversal came after Health Department staff had a chance to look more closely at the issues and numbers involved. The original decision to go independent had been based on very limited information, most of which came from Dowe, Killoren said.

Prior to the meeting, Commissioner Huffman called to make sure the Independent was planning to be present. At the end of the meeting, he lavished praise on Health Board members. Then, in an apparent play to members of the press, he publicly asked Killoren whether county commissioners had ever pressured the Health Board into firing Dowe.

"Absolutely not," Killoren answered. "We had no dialogue with you whatsoever."

Huffman and Killoren then both went on to say that there had never really been any tensions between the Board of Health and county commissioners -- only between Dowe and the commissioners.

"A united front"

However, documents obtained by the Independent earlier this year show Health Board members were upset by Huffman's public comments criticizing the Health Department. Killoren, in e-mail messages, complained that Huffman had exposed the department to "unwarranted criticism," and she asked him what the Board of Health had done to earn his "lack of faith." Another board member, Terry Thatcher, called the commissioners' refusal to reappoint Jack Dillon, the only medical doctor on the board, a "real travesty."

Huffman, meanwhile, complained openly in e-mails that the Board of Health was treating him with suspicion.

Lisa Hickey, an attorney for Dowe, refuses to believe that all those exchanges were mere bagatelles, long since forgotten. But given the fact that both boards face a potential lawsuit by Dowe, Hickey can see why they might pretend that's the case, she said.

"It's logical that they would be more powerful if they present a united front," Hickey said. Dowe, she said, "gets to be a scapegoat that way."

Hickey said she's not surprised that the Board of Health now agrees with the county commissioners on the payroll and benefits issues, since the commissioners altered the Health Board's composition. "That was the point of appointing these members," Hickey said.

Huffman rejected the idea that the commissioners have stacked the Health Board. Board members "were not appointed because they were going to be sympathetic to anybody's viewpoint," he said.

Killoren, meanwhile, dismissed Hickey's suggestion that legal concerns might play a role in the newfound love between the Board of Health and the commissioners. "That's simply not true," Killoren said.

-- Terje Langeland


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