By Harbor Light News Staff | on January 26, 2022
By Kate Bassett
Harbor Light Newspaper
Amid heightened political tensions and misinformation campaigns surrounding public health, many communities across the country are grappling with what happens when national conversations trickle down into local institutions. This is at play in northern Michigan, as a four-county health department– that has served the area for more than 90 years– seems to be at risk of collapsing.
Masks, vaccines, and the Health Department of Northwest Michigan’s right to issue mandates in order to protect the well-being of a community, have been sources of aggressive arguments at the Board of Health table, which is composed of two county commissioners from each of the four counties: Antrim, Emmet, Charlevoix and Otsego. And this week, one of Emmet County’s representatives on the Board of Health, Commissioner Charlie MacInnis, tendered his resignation amid growing concerns about the direction the board is taking.
MacInnis submitted his resignation to Emmet County administrator Mike Reaves, so that it could be formally accepted this week, in advance of the next Board of Health meeting on February 1. MacInnis will remain on the Emmet County Board of Commissioners.
“I want to be clear: I’m doing this for a reason. I’m willing to fight every fight, but the only way to fight what’s happening on the Board of Health is to force it to pause,” MacInnis said in an interview with this newspaper. “Right now, we’re looking at a train wreck to the left and a train wreck to the right, and the best thing I can do is paralyze that Board of Health.”
“Our health department is a gem,” MacInnis stressed. “I can’t say enough about the good work that is done there. This Board of Health’s dysfunction is so great, however, that it is on a course of destruction.”
Hyper-partisanship, most often based in clearly identified misinformation, has caused crises in health departments around Michigan, including death threats made on those who serve their communities. The Health Department of Northwest Michigan has faced this as well, making the Board’s reactions and lack of support all the more disconcerting.
MacInnis’s resignation is the latest in a long list of red flags, including an Op-Ed penned in October by health officer, Lisa Peacock, who was very direct in sounding the alarm.
“The public ought to be concerned– deeply concerned– about the operation of its local government when it comes to public health,” she wrote. “I serve as the local health officer for six counties and two local health departments, but I write this as a concerned citizen with a front row seat to the destruction of our basic civic responsibilities to one another as exemplified by some of our own elected County Commissioners who serve on the Board of the Health Department of Northwest Michigan which covers Antrim, Charlevoix, Emmet, and Otsego counties.”
Peacock’s warnings came after the Board of Health (which at the time included two different Emmet County Commissioners, Dave Bachelor and Dave White) met in September and voted 6-1– in what amounted to an hours long display of political theatre to rescind the universal mask mandate that health officer Lisa Peacock issued for public schools.
The vote was not legally enforceable; Peacock’s mandate to protect public health, however, is required by law.
The mask mandate meeting came with such vitriol that Peacock filed an official complaint with the Michigan Attorney General.
The complaint cited a possible violation of the Open Meetings Act (which notes that policy discussions among a quorum of elected officials must occur within the context of a public meeting, and officials are barred from using electronic communication methods for deliberation, according to the Open Meetings Act handbook), as well the way members of the public physically intimidated the health department’s staff.
Within 24 hours of the complaint being filed, Emmet County’s representatives at the time, Commissioners White and Bachelor– both of whom voted to rescind the mask mandate– resigned from the Board of Health.
Commissioners Matt Koontz and Charlie MacInnis replaced them, just in time to help stop an attempt to remove health leaders from their positions.
“At the November 2021 meeting of the Board of Health, my first meeting as a newly appointed board member, motions were put to a vote to terminate health officer Lisa Peacock, medical director Dr. Josh Meyerson, and the attorney for the board of health,” MacInnis said. “The removal of Antrim County Commissioner, Karen Bargy, as chair of the Board of Health was also sought. While the motions failed narrowly, the Antrim County Board of Commissioners recently removed Mrs. Bargy as one of its two appointees to the Board of Health.”
Bargy was the lone vote against rescinding the mask mandate last September; in an Antrim County Board meeting later that month, the first move was made (and narrowly defeated) to remove her as one of Antrim’s representatives on the Board of Health.
In 2022, the Antrim Board of Commissioners did not reappoint Bargy, MacInnis said. She had served the Board of Health for many years.
This triggered MacInnis’s resignation.
“I believe all of the motions (likely to come now that Bargy is no longer chair) would have immediate, direct, and irreversible negative impacts on vital public health protections and services to many segments of Emmet County,” MacInnis said, adding, “opposition would be futile.”
“Of immediate importance, lawsuits against the health department have been filed in Emmet County and Otsego County circuit courts,” he added. “I fully expect that the health department will be rendered defenseless against these suits once legal representation is removed with immediate, negative impact on our county’s schools.”
MacInnis went on to warn Emmet County school districts that the protection of the health department’s mask mandate may go away, if the “Let Them Breathe” lawsuit wins. A University of Michigan study showed that mask mandates lower school transmission rates of COVID-19. Schools in northern Michigan that have been protected by a mandate seem to have fared better, in terms of less/shorter shut-downs. Traverse City Public Schools experimented with removing its mask mandate and within a week was forced to go virtual, with the mandate reinstated upon return.
MacInnis’s resignation comes on the heels of a conversation about possible alternatives to the four county Health Department that was raised at an Emmet County Board of Commissioners meeting last week. At that time, both MacInnis and Koontz warned their fellow Commissioners of the impending crisis of leadership.
Koontz stressed during the meeting that the health department itself has a long tradition of excellence, but that the Board of Health may make it difficult for public health experts to do their job.
In an interview on Tuesday, January 25, MacInnis said, at this moment, there are “several awful options” for moving forward (which is why he is trying to hit pause).
“One of which is the breakup of this four county health department. Emmet County, I believe, is the biggest funder of the consortium. I’m pretty certain there are counties, like Antrim, that could not afford to have their own health department.
“So I ask you: who loses in this situation? Women, infants and children do. People who need dental care; school nurses; vaccination health care; environmental health care. All of this is at risk. Tell me what’s good about that? Tell me how this is really serving our communities?”
MacInnis noted that he has seen how national hyperpartisan divisions are drilling down into community and family levels in ways he previously would not have imagined.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this in my career or my lifetime,” he said. “In Emmet County, I believe our Board of Commissioners have been very careful, thanks to all seven members and our administrator, to stay focused on our jobs. To stay focused on serving our communities. This Board of Health situation is an infection.”
When MacInnis and Koontz first joined the Board of Health in November, a lack of stability was immediately recognized.
“We brought with us a way of doing business employed by the Emmet County Board of Commissioners that was sorely lacking with the Board of Health; we have 14 pages of rules for the conduct of public meetings, a full page of rules for public comment ,and a code of ethics. The Board of Health has a three-page outdated set of bylaws,” MacInnis said in a November, 2021 interview.
The attempts made by the Emmet County Commissioners to support a more structured, more mission-focused way of operating fell on deaf ears. With Bargy removed, MacInnis reiterated that right now he believes the only path is “to pause.”
“We have a four county Board of Health that will, after the next meeting, only have three counties represented,” he said, noting he believes the board will make it impossible for Emmet County’s remaining representative to continue attending meetings. This will leave only three counties represented on the board, “which means it cannot do business.”
“Right now, I only know step one, which is me resigning,” MacInnis said when asked what will happen to the health department’s ability to function if the Board of Health cannot operate. “Step two is unknown.”
During the last Emmet County Board of Commissioners meeting, he asked administrator, Mike Reaves, to look into options available to the county, including removing Emmet County from its current partnership with Antrim, Charlevoix and Otsego.
Otsego County Commissioners already looked at this option, but for different reasons (complaints about overextended health officer powers in relation to mask mandates).
Reaves agreed to review the existing contract and begin exploring alternative options for the county; Emmet County Commission chair Toni Drier said she supports getting more information, especially given the level of concern Emmet County’s representatives have about the health department’s future.
Most other members of the Board of Health have made clear in the September and November public meetings that they do not support the health department’s leadership and pandemic-related mandates. At least one member, Robert Pallarito, an Otsego County Commissioner, has shared “memes” on his personal social media page that include sentiments like: “the Omicron variant reportedly has mild symptoms like soreness and exhaustion. The same thing you’d feel after a hard day’s work…No wonder liberals are terrified of it,” as well as a Forest Gump meme that is captioned, “I ain’t a smart man but I know them first three shots ain’t working” in reference to COVID-19 vaccines.
Again, Pallarito sits on the Board of Health for the Health Department of Northwest Michigan.
According to new data released by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), unvaccinated adults ages 65-and up infected with COVID-19 were 49-times more likely to be hospitalized in December than those in the same age group who had been vaccinated and boosted.
To date, more than 31,300 Michiganders have died from COVID-19.
With the attacks on public health decisions continuing, and with a lack of faith in the Board of Health’s ability to put the advice of medical experts at the forefront of their decision-making, MacInnis said he could not in good conscience continue to show up.
For now, MacInnis said what he will continue to show up for is the health and wellbeing of Emmet County, and said he hopes citizens will do the same.
“I’m here for our children and grandchildren. I’m here to serve,” he said. “I know back in November when I joined the Board of Health, I got 160 emails prior to that meeting. All but eight were supportive (of the Health Department). I think it’s important for folks to continue to support elected officials who are trying to do the right thing.”
MacInnis added that more and more, there is a need for authentic, service-based civic engagement in communities.
“The reality is, once someone gets elected, they are in office until the next election. People have to make that connection, and also, we need people who are willing to raise their hands to do this work.”