The Flathead City-County Board of Health on May 21 voted to extend its contract with Health Officer Hillary Hanson by six months, allowing the department adequate time to hire a qualified candidate to replace her.
Hanson notified county officials that she would not be seeking a contract renewal on March 5, but agreed to stay on in her role overseeing the department as concerns surrounding the coronavirus pandemic ramped up.
That same month, the Flathead County Commission designated Hanson as the “incident commander” charged with leading the local response to the coronavirus pandemic.
According to Tammy Skramovsky, Flathead County’s human resources director, the county posted the vacant position in April and will continue accepting applications through May 25. However, COVID-19 has caused critical delays in the hiring process, including a backlog in the state’s ability to complete criminal background checks.
Extending Hanson’s contract allows for continuity in leadership, county officials said.
“For me, this is just extending a contract as we would with any other department head for a position that we haven’t filled yet,” County Commissioner Pam Holmquist, who also serves on the health board, said. “Now we have that experience in the department until we get a new hire. It was going to be a tight deadline to meet even in normal times given the parameters of a normal search.”
Given the restrictions surrounding out-of-state travel, Holmquist said there has been uncertainty about whether the department’s personnel committee could adequately interview and vet prospective candidates for such an important position.
Hanson’s contract, which is up at the end of June, was extended by unanimous board approval with the exception of Dr. Annie Bukacek, who abstained from voting.
“I’m going to have to abstain because I wasn’t given adequate information,” Bukacek told the board. “This could have been done better. A lot better.”
Health Board Member Bill Burg said the personnel and hiring committee has been working diligently — not only to conduct a search for a qualified candidate to replace Hanson under difficult circumstances, but also to ensure the county has a health officer to continue in an interim capacity.
“Before today, we had a series of questions. What happens if we don’t have a candidate by July 1? If we don’t have a candidate, do we have a health officer to serve in an interim position? If she says no, do we have a deputy officer to carry out those responsibilities?” Burg explained. “Now all the pieces are put together, the search for a replacement is ongoing, and we have a contract to be extended by six months by mutual agreement. Before today, we would have had a lot of questions that we didn’t have answers to.”
In her role as health officer, Hanson was tasked with making difficult decisions about enforcing restrictions on businesses and residents as the spread of coronavirus increased locally and statewide. Although those measures mirrored the statewide restrictions, the health board received four letters of opposition to Hanson’s contract extension, including from county residents who characterized the business restrictions as “an egregious abuse of power.” However, most county officials and board members expressed appreciation for her leadership.
“Actually, it was the grace of Hillary saying she was willing to stay on and orient us that saved us,” Skramovsky said.