Dr. Annie Bukacek announced Thursday afternoon during a Flathead City-County Board of Health meeting that she is resigning from the board, and will submit an official letter of resignation to the county commissioners.
Appointed to the board in January of 2020 with a term set to expire at the end of the year, Bukacek characterized the move as an effort to avoid any perceived conflict of interest following her decision last week to run for the Public Service Commission (PSC).
“I will be resigning from this board. I will be sending a letter of resignation to the county commissioners. I’m running for public service commissioner in District 5. I want to avoid any perceived conflict of interest between the PSC and this board,” Bukacek said. “It’s been a fascinating, enlightening experience and I’ll be expressing in my letter to the county commissioners my gratitude for this appointment.”
Her decision to resign appeared to be a surprise to some members of the board. Board Chair Roger Noble responded to Bukacek’s announcement by thanking her for her service and, apparently referring to the announcement, said it was “a bit of a surprise.” Pam Holmquist, a county commissioner that sits on the board, said she was surprised by the announcement and thinks other members of the board were as well.
As of late Friday morning the county commissioners had yet to receive a letter of resignation from Bukacek. If they do get a letter, Holmquist said the county will move forward with its standard process for filling the board position. The timing of that process will partially depend on whether or not Bukacek intends to resign immediately or at a later date.
Bukacek’s announcement came toward the end of the meeting, which began as most board of health meetings have in recent months: with multiple speakers during the public comment portion discussing a variety of things they are upset with or concerned about, mostly relating to the pandemic, for which they typically blame the board of health. This week’s public comment included claims that the pandemic is somehow tied to election years, that the board of health is to blame for the behavior of people during public comment, that the board of health should allow people to take personal responsibility for their health, that vaccines are poisonous, that the vaccines are giving people COVID-19, and that the board of health has overstepped in its authority. One man yelled at Health Officer Joe Russelland called him “a demon snake.” Another man said he personally knew five unvaccinated people that had died from COVID-19 and that he believes getting the vaccine is beneficial.
Bukacek has been a leader in the local anti-vaccine community and has organized and participated in protests against public health measures intended to slow the spread of COVID-19. She has repeatedly criticized Russell and questioned his decision making. She’s also found herself in conflict with other members of the board.
One former board member, Michael Nicosia, resigned in May of 2020, saying that he could not in good conscience serve alongside Bukacek. Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld and all six members of the Whitefish City Council signed a letter in April 2020 asking the Flathead County Comissioners to remove Bukacek from her position. The letter cited an address Bukacek gave at Chuck Baldwin’s Liberty Fellowship Church in Kalispell in which she claimed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was manipulating data and figures to exaggerate the COVID-19 death toll. A video of Bukacek’s claims went viral. Petitions to keep her on the board, and to remove her from the board, have both been circulated.
Thursday’s meeting included an update on the county’s COVID-19 situation. “The graphs all look pretty impressive, we’re seeing a lot of reduction in numbers,” Russell said, adding that the test positivity rate in the county is at 5%. The meeting also included an update on the ongoing search for a new county health officer.
The search for a new Flathead County health officer has stretched over two years. Russell, the current health officer, came out of retirement to take the job in the fall of 2020 after interim health officer Tamalee St. James Robinson resigned amid what she called a “toxic environment being fostered between the Commissioners, the Board of Health, and the Health Department,” which in her view was making it difficult to recruit a new health officer. Robinson had replaced Hillary Hanson, who in March of 2020 said she would be not seeking a renewal of her contract.
Russell worked for the health department for 30 years, including 20 as health officer, before retiring in 2017.He recently told the Beacon he has no intention of remaining the county health officer beyond June 2022. He said he plans on going back to teaching, and that putting an end date on his term might speed up the process to replace him.
“This needs to be someone else’s health department, and it wouldn’t be fair for me to just linger along, and delay the process of getting someone in this seat that wants to make this their own health department, with the guidance of others,” Russell said last week. “At the end of the day, I ran the health department the same way for 20 years as I did now.”
The county, which has used an outside firm to conduct the hiring search, has received eight applicants for the health officer position and is moving forward with the hiring process; however, health board officials say they won’t necessarily interview all applicants.
“We’re still reviewing some of them, but they’ve determined five of them will go through for sure. Maybe one or two more,” Holmquist said at the Thursday meeting.
Interviews with the board’s personnel committee are scheduled to start Monday, March 21. There will be a public comment period before the meeting goes into an executive session for interviews. The committee will then make a recommendation, and the recommended candidates will go to the health board, which will then make a recommendation to the commissioners. The commissioners will conduct an interview, which will be public, according to Holmquist. The position pays up to $125,000 a year.
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