Updated: Dec. 20, 12:35 p.m.
The outgoing chair and vice chair of the Flathead City-County Health Board accused the Flathead County Commission of dubious politicking on Dec. 19 for their decision to replace them with appointees they say are unqualified.
In January, Dr. Annie Bukacek and Ardis Larsen will replace Board Chair Dr. David Myerowitz and Vice Chair Dr. Wayne Miller, who have both been on the board for a decade. Myerowitz, who in the past served as the chief of cardiac surgery at Ohio State University, was particularly critical of the decision to appoint Bukacek, a local physician and outspoken critic of vaccinations.
Toward the end of the board’s meeting on Dec. 19, Myerowitz read from a sharply worded statement that specifically targeted Commissioners Phil Mitchell and Pam Holmquist, the latter of whom sits on the health board. Holmquist was not at the regularly scheduled meeting.
“The Flathead County Commission has put politics first and the welfare of this county’s residents a far second,” Myerowitz said. “As Henry Kissinger once put it, ‘90 percent of politicians give the other 10 percent a bad reputation.’”
Earlier this month, the county commission appointed new members to a number of boards, including two open spots on the city-county health board. Myerowitz and Miller were both up for three-year terms and had applied to be reinstated, along with three other candidates. During the Dec. 11 meeting, the commissioners voted unanimously to replace the two incumbents.
“The board needed a change,” Mitchell said when asked by the Beacon why he decided to replace Myerowitz and Miller, adding that Larsen and Bukacek are both qualified for the volunteer position.
But Myerowitz accused the commissioners of bowing to business interests and retaliating against him after a conflict he had earlier this year with a local engineer, Jeff Larsen, who is the husband of Ardis Larsen.
Over the years, the Larsens have gone before the board to get approval for various septic and well projects at housing subdivisions they were working on. Earlier this year, Jeff Larsen and other local engineers approached the board with concerns about delays in getting septic permits approved. While the Montana Department of Environmental Quality has the legal responsibility to inspect such systems, it sometimes outsources the work to local health departments, which in the past has been able to do the work faster than the state.
Myerowitz said during one meeting a disagreement arose with Larsen. The board chair said he tried to set up a meeting to resolve the issue, but Larsen never took him up on the offer.
Mitchell said the disagreement between Larsen and the board played into his decision to replace Myerowitz and Miller.
“It’s not appropriate for a board to handle people like that,” Mitchell said.
Ardis Larsen, who has been the office manager of Larsen Engineering & Surveying since 1993 and does field work and inspections, said she and her husband felt “disrespected” by the board, and specifically Myerowitz, in the past. She decided to apply to be on the board so that she could bring her perspective on environmental issues to the health department.
But Myerowitz and Miller saved most of their ire for the commission’s decision to appoint Bukacek, founder of Hosanna Health Care, director of the Montana Pro-Life Coalition and a vaccination skeptic.
“This is deeply disturbing,” Myerowitz said of the decision to appoint Bukacek to the board. “The outbreak of measles earlier this year, mainly in the unvaccinated populations of the United States, reminds us that we are always at risk if we allow anti-vaccination sentiment to gain a foothold … This board must fight any attempt to interfere with this department’s mandate to increase child and long-term care staff vaccination rates and prevent this county from going to go back to 19th century medicine.”
“We are being replaced with two people who are, without question, not qualified to sit on this board,” Miller said.
After their comments, Myerowitz and Miller both received a round of applause from the audience.
Ardis Larsen rejected the idea that she was not qualified for the board and said she is looking forward to getting to work in January.
“My thought is that this is a citizens’ board and that it will be good to have someone who understands the environmental aspects of (the health department’s duties),” she said.
In an interview with the Beacon, Bukacek said she had “serious reservations about the vaccination industry,” adding that the federal government, through the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, has paid billions of dollars to people who have claimed to have been negatively impacted by vaccines.
Despite the furor over Bukacek’s views, the physician said she doubted her views on vaccinations would be a concern on the board when she is seated in January.
“I don’t anticipate it being an issue,” she said. “I get along very well with people with different views.”
Mitchell and Holmquist defended their votes for Bukacek. The commissioners said that while they both support vaccinations, they thought it was important to have a diversity of opinions on the board.
“I’ve had people bring it up to me that she’s against vaccinations, but Flathead County is not just going to stop vaccinating people,” Mitchell said. “Vaccinations are extremely important.”
“Bukacek is only one person on a board,” Holmquist said. “(Myerowitz and Miller) are just upset that they got kicked off the board … This is not a big deal. It’s all being blown out of proportion.”
At the end of the meeting, Public Health Officer Hillary Hanson thanked Myerowitz and Miller for their “invaluable” contributions to the health department over the last decade. Hanson declined to comment directly on the appointment of Bukacek and Larsen but said, “The board is here to guide us and my hope is that everyone on the board continues to support public health in the community.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include comments from Dr. Annie Bukacek.