Otsego board considers action against health ministry in mask dispute

GAYLORD – There were calls on Tuesday to reimburse, separate or sue the Northwestern Michigan Department of Health amid the ongoing dispute over the school mask mandate.

Members of the public, as well as the Otsego County Commissioners, expressed their displeasure with the health department’s continued stance on masking in schools, with most criticism continuing to be directed against the officer in charge. health Lisa Peacock. This follows a series of events that began when Peacock issued a health order requiring masks in schools amid the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.

This decision was rejected by some members of the board of health and led to a tense meeting in early September. In a letter this month to Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, Peacock alleged that members of the board of health took no action to prevent a hostile environment for him at that meeting.

On Tuesday, Otsego County Board Chairman Paul Liss read a letter he wrote to oppose the allegations, and Commissioner Julie Powers suggested putting the county’s funds at the service. health in receivership.

Many members of the public who spoke at the meeting called for even stronger action.

“Please release us from this health department. I would ask that we separate from the Department of Health, fund them, sue them, ”said Citizen Kelly Palmer. “Something. I’m not a legal expert, but I understand that if there is a law, you have to follow it, and therefore we have to hold them accountable.”

Many have raised similar concerns about the alleged illegality of the mask’s mandate, although compiled Michigan law grants health departments the power to take action to protect public health in the event of an emergency. Some audience members argued that the mask warrants violated the First Amendment, while others pointed to a September public law that seeks to ban health departments from enforcing mask warrants in schools.

This provision was hidden in a budget bill and was approved, although some have argued that it does not go against existing state law. He has not yet been fully tried by the courts.

Liss’s letter said that amidst the heightened tension and emotion associated with the pandemic, it was the responsibility of the health department to exercise more caution and practice communication, and that the ” lack of partnership “between the health department and its counties can create the” perception of unilateral decision-making “.

Powers and Rob Pallarito, the two commissioners who sit on the health board, objected to Peacock’s characterization of the meeting in his letter. They also responded to another allegation in that letter – the suggestion that Pallarito and three other board members, one from each of the other three counties represented by the health department, violated the open meetings law. when they jointly signed a letter in late August opposing the mask’s mandate.

This letter was signed outside of the context of a public board meeting.

Pallarito said it was a reaction to the board of health’s inability to call a meeting between Peacock’s tenure and the start of school.

“The board of health was not involved in the discussions, so I wrote a letter out of sheer anger, disgust or hurt feelings until we could have a discussion,” he said.

He said he sent it to three other commissioners, who asked if they could sign. They haven’t broken any laws, he said.

“As far as I know, no other board member was aware of the letter,” he said. “It was a discussion of ideas and again, it was only a few of us Commissioners less than a quorum.”

Powers said board members have strived to stay above the board and professional, although those efforts may not be apparent from the outside.

She said neither she nor Pallarito had spoken to the media, despite requests.

She also said that she was “tired of all the phone calls, emails and comments that cast a bad light on our board” and that the situation has made it “difficult for me to remain a neutral person on this matter. board because I think I should, “she said. “I am no longer neutral.

Liss said he was unsure of the legality of Powers’ suggestion to put health department funds in receivership, noting that it may not be possible to reverse funds that have already been allocated. . He said the county would look at its options, but would have to ensure that any action taken was legally defensible.

A small contingent, however, spoke out in favor of the health department and urged commissioners not to take any drastic action to endanger the other services the health department provides to citizens.

“I’m just warning us to take a break here and do all of this good work,” said Linda Yaroch, a former health worker.

She expressed concern that some of the public comments offered at the meeting – on legal and health issues – were not supported by the facts.

“So as you move forward, what I really urge you to do is work with your board of health officials and start building bridges,” she said. “There is a way forward. … Maybe you are not happy with the way it has been deployed, but it can be fixed. We can get past that.

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