Members voted not to pursue further investigation into the matter
The San Juan Basin Public Health board voted Thursday evening to pursue a forward-looking resolution and pursue a “lessons learned” approach after the release of a report on the COVID-19 emergency compensation of top department executives.
The board’s seven members unanimously voted to refine and clarify the agency’s policy on compensation for exempt employees during declared emergencies.
The report in question, written by the receiver overseeing SJBPH’s finances, was requested by the two counties that will assume public health duties upon the district’s dissolution on Jan. 1, 2024. It documented more than $846,000 in payments made over three years during the declared public health emergency.
The recipients of those payments were exempt employees of the department who were paid an annual salary to fulfill their job duties, sometimes working in excess of the standard 40-hour workweek.
In accordance with the department’s policy, which is similar to that of comparable agencies, those exempt employees were eligible to be paid for work in excess of 40 hours per week because of the exceptional demands of the situation.
But the receiver, Bellann Raile, and some board members have highlighted concerns about the record-keeping by top employees who received significant chunks of the total emergency compensation.
The department’s two top officials at the time, Liane Jollon and Tiffany Switzer, received 25% and 15% of the total payments, respectively. Jollon served as the executive director until May 2023, at which time Switzer was promoted from deputy director to interim executive director.
In a rigorous discussion about the report, members of the Board of Health wrestled with how to move forward.
Archuleta County Commissioner Warren Brown stressed that he thought it was unlikely that any malfeasance occurred, but wanted to take a “trust, but verify” approach.
“I have to be accountable to my constituents,” he said. “… I want to be able to understand, thoroughly, why these moneys were paid out.”
La Plata County Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton said that although she believed Jollon was deserving of the compensation, she took issue with the lack of documentation.
The board’s chairwoman, Shere Byrd, called the moment “a painful but great learning opportunity.”
There was one question that was largely unanswered at the end of the receiver’s report: How much did board members know about emergency compensation payments, and should there have been more oversight?
Two former board members attended the meeting virtually and addressed that matter. Former chairwoman Ann Bruzzese and former La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt both sat on the Board of Health in 2020 when the pandemic began.
“I knew the policy was in place in 2020 when the board declared a public health emergency, I knew that money was being paid out to people, I saw the reports that it was being paid out,” Bruzzese said. “I specifically had knowledge of the amount Liane was working.”
Bruzzese said she felt that Jollon’s reputation had been “harmed unnecessarily.”
Lachelt reminded the board of the chaotic and demanding nature of the time.
“It’s like being a firefighter – you’re not going to stop while you’re fighting the fire and write down your hours,” she said.
Jollon listened to the meeting, but did not participate. In an interview with The Durango Herald, Jollon said she was appreciative that Bruzzese and Lachelt spoke, given that they had not been directly contacted by the receiver.
After airing members’ reactions, the board had three options before it: do nothing, make modifications to the policy or investigate further.
Commissioner Brown said he wanted further review, arguing that public trust could be compromised without knowing “for sure” that there had been no wrongdoing.
However, as Byrd pointed out, such an investigation would likely come at a significant cost to taxpayers and could further inhibit the two counties from standing up successful health departments.
Ultimately, board members seemed to agree that the receiver is herself a neutral third party who had concluded that “EC payments made to a majority of the SJBPH exempt employees appear subjectively reasonable and are supported by the proper documentation as called for in the internal procedures.”
Given the conclusion, the board felt it was most reasonable and diligent to make minor changes to the policy to shore up otherwise unclear language.
Even those critical of the department’s practices expressed a desire not to diminish the extensive work that the department’s employees took upon themselves during the pandemic.
Jollon said that the emergency compensation for exempt employees is exactly the sort of thing that public health departments need to in order to respond to unprecedented events. The added support is critical at a moment when public health workers are leaving the field in droves.
“When you prevent the dedicated workforce from doing what’s needed to save lives or add a sense of betrayal to the frustration and exhaustion that people feel after working so hard in this field, you may be tipping people toward moving out of the field at the exact time that all the evidence (shows) that we need to be growing,” she said.