Flathead County

Board of Health Recommends Appointing New Health Officer on Interim Basis

Health Officer Joe Russell has said that he does not plan to remain in his current role after the end of June

By Mike Kordenbrock
The Flathead City-County Health Department on March 11, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Flathead City-County Board of Health voted unanimously to recommend the county commissioners hire Jennifer Rankosky as health officer on an interim basis.

Rankosky has been with the Flathead City-County Health Department for about 20 years and currently serves as the department’s population health manager. The board voted during a special meeting on June 2 and the decision took place as current health officer Joe Russell prepares to leave his role at the end of June. Russell came out of retirement to take on the role on a temporary basis. Russell previously worked for the health department for 30 years, including 20 as health officer. 

Flathead County commissioners will now have to vote on the recommendation before Rankosky’s hiring becomes official. That extra step is the result of House Bill 121, which passed during the last legislative session primarily with Republican support. The bill, which Gov. Greg Gianforte signed into law, requires elected officials to approve of health board and health officer actions. Part of the law stipulates that a board of health recommend to its governing body the appointment of a local health officer.

Last month the board of health voted by a 4-2 margin against recommending the county commissioners hire Michael Chambers, a health officer candidate finalist who is the health department administrator in Macon County, Mo. County commissioners then voted in favor of the board’s recommendation by a 2-1 margin, with Commissioner Randy Brodehl as the only vote in opposition.

Chair Roger Noble was able to get support to add an amendment to the motion to recommend Rankosky’s hiring stating that the board will continue to concurrently move forward with a nationwide search to fill the health officer position.

The health department has been searching for a health officer for more than two years following former health officer Hillary Hanson’s decision in March of 2020 not to seek contract renewal. Tamalee St. James Robinson replaced her on an interim basis and then resigned at the end of 2020 amid what she described as “a toxic environment being fostered between the Commissioners, the Board of Health, and the Health Department.” At the time St. James Robinson described in a letter of resignation her belief that county commissioners and the board of health had failed to protect the public during the pandemic and that county leaders were motived more by “ideological biases” than community service.

Rankosky’s appointment will be effective for up to a year. During discussion at the special meeting Russell mentioned that Rankosky has additional experience in incident command and noted that she’s been a public information officer for the county “on several big fires.” Russell also pointed out that Rankosky meets the statutory requirements for a health officer in Montana because she holds a master’s in public health. Health officers in the state are required to have a master’s in public health or an M.D. or equivalent experience.

Tammy Skramovsky, the county’s human resources director, said during the board of health’s special meeting that she had yet to speak with Rankosky, but that her understanding was that Rankosky does not want to be in the role for more than a year. In its most recent search for a health officer, the county listed the position as paying up to $125,000 a year. Skramovsky said she’s not sure what the exact salary offer would be for Rankosky, but that it would be discussed. Additionally, Skramovsky said that in situations like this where a staff member is promoted on an interim basis, their original position is typically left vacant so that they can return to it at the end of their interim role. She said there is also the option to hire someone to take on Rankosky’s current job on an interim basis.

The county is continuing to work with the hiring firm Prothman as part of its efforts to find a health officer. Prothman’s contract obligates it to conduct another search, and board of health member Don Barnhart said the board has been advised to “hold off and let everything kind of cool down on looking for new recruits for the position.”

Asked about Prothman’s recommendations about restarting the process to find a health officer, Skramovsky said there isn’t a definite timeframe, but that the county should be eying sometime in the fall or winter. Once the search process begins again it will take three to four months, she said. Rankosky in that case will likely be in the position of health officer for a minimum of six months, according to Skramovsky.

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