BY LEAH CRAIG
The Livingston County Board of Commissioners met with the intent to approve several resolutions, including the “Resolution Approving Appointment of the Public Health Officer.”
Matt Bolang has been acting as the interim health officer following the retirement of Dianne McCormick in July. And while an assortment of high ranking Livingston County public officials– including various Commissioners– have spoken highly of Bolang’s integrity and dedication, the crowd of speakers that frequents such meetings remained thoroughly unconvinced.
The meeting’s call to the public segments were riddled with dissent, and the speakers who addressed the topic of health officer ranged from disapproving to disparaging. Many were repeat speakers from former meetings, reiterating their stance on the proposal to appoint Bolang, as well as elaborating on their dislike of McCormick’s policies during her tenure.
Most of these dissenters concerned themselves with a singular issue: the management, or lack thereof, of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Despite the constant waves of change brought on by an era of uncertainty, their primary rhetoric has not changed over the past two years: it is best characterized by firm opposition to masks, vaccinations, government mandates or perceived interference in the lives of individuals.
The chaos of coronavirus has left a sizeable impression on the community, resulting in widespread pandemic-related myopia that’s all too often tinged with hysteria. The two key talking points of the evening were the well-being of businesses and children.
One woman explained her perspective, stating that the Board should not appoint Bolang as a result of his role in the health department during the early phases of the pandemic. Bolang, she elaborated, was “willingly involved in investigating small businesses for compliance with COVID-19 mandates and reporting them to the State of Michigan, which could possibly lead to these small businesses being fined and/or losing their licenses to operate.”
Jennifer Smith, leader of the Livingston County Moms for Liberty, characterized her crusade not as a “witch hunt for Matt Bolang, but a witch hunt for truth and justice.” Smith condemned the health department as having “failed our children” during the pandemic with “unwarranted quarantines, unnecessary house arrests, and illegally denying kids access to school.” Smith added that her own child had missed 41 days of school as a result of close contact quarantining.
Moms for Liberty was highly engaged in disputing area school boards efforts at controlling the spread of the virus, but has since moved on to promoting anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric against efforts at accommodating gay and transgender students.
Despite these concerns, data collected by The Bridge shows that none of the Livingston County schools require masks be worn by students or staff, nor do they have quarantine procedures in place for the 2022-23 school year.
Commissioner Carol Griffith pointed out that, while pandemic response and management did constitute a crucial portion of the health officer position, it represents only a small fraction of issues facing the health department. She elaborated that Bolang’s background and work with the Livingston County Health Department has provided him with opportunities to deal with a wide variety of public health concerns, including emergency preparedness services, environmental health services, public beach, campground, and swimming pool codes, body art facilities, adult care facilities, food protection, housing, and water quality.
Areas of public health addressed by the Livingston County Health Officer include overseeing children’s health and care services, chronic disease prevention and management, communicable disease control, hearing and vision screening, immunizations, Tuberculosis testing, health insurance enrollment, and the Nurses Welcome Newborns program, among numerous others.
In regards to the resolution itself, the Board of Commissioners initially presented two options: hire the internal candidate, or pursue an “exhaustive search” via a third party hiring company. However, after a great deal of deliberation, negotiation, and failed amendments, the Board unanimously opted to amend the language in the resolution and ultimately delay the appointment of a health officer.
The framework for the amended language provided that “Matt Bolang be considered as an applicant as health officer for the Livingston County Health Department, effective upon completion of an exhaustive search.” The Board decided against using a third party hiring company, opting instead to post the job opening through county resources. The search will be conducted over a two week increment, with an additional two weeks available if necessary.
This modified language was met with audible distaste from those present. The audience in attendance was a lively one, and, as such, their reactions to varying decisions and comments from the Board were made very clear. It should be noted that the Chairman of the Board Wes Nakagiri, who later made passing reference to Robert’s Rules of order in reference to contract language and legal proceedings, failed to maintain order and promote adherence to this code of conduct, even as audience members booed and heckled members of the Board. If whispers among the crowd are to be believed, many felt that the language used negated the purpose of a search, the implication being that Bolang would be appointed regardless. Others expressed concern that an internal search would skew the results, given the apparent widespread support for Bolang amongst county officials and employees.
Another aspect that was met with audience disapproval– as well as visible disappointment from select members of the Board– was the revelation from the Board’s legal counsel, who cited that the state would have the ability to give advice and consent to the Commissioners in their search. Over the last few months of debate, Commissioner Nakagiri has made it clear that his ideal candidate would be someone who would resist State and CDC guidelines, a notion supported by various community members over the course of several meetings.
Nakagiri added that he would like to have Bolang present his views to community members as a dialogue, in a public forum “like somebody from the Supreme Court.” Nakagiri’s analogy of the Supreme Court Justice confirmation process doesn’t necessarily align with the sentiment, as such confirmations aren’t overseen by members of the public, but rather by elected officials.
The Livingston County Board of Commissioners will meet again on October 6th.