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Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph health officer gets raise and 1-year extension despite public opposition

Posted at 5:18 PM, Dec 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-14 19:00:18-05

HILLSDALE, Mich. — The contract for Rebecca Burns, health officer for the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency was renewed on Monday despite some vocal public opposition. Health agency officials also gave her a raise

The meeting of the agency’s board was held over Zoom Monday morning after board members shut down an in-person meeting Thursday because members of the public were not following COVID protocols.

Several of Burns’ critics were at the meeting. citing concerns of unconstitutionality and what they called tyrannical behavior related to her handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I am against the extension of Rebecca Burns’ contract. I think she has been acting unconstitutional. That was evident at the meeting last week. I just think we need a constitutional health officer. Yes, I agree there’s a bad virus out there, but I don’t agree that our constitutional rights should be usurped,” Hillsdale resident Penny Swan said.

County resident Susan Eversole said she believes Burns's actions "have turned the office into an adversary position, as opposed to a position of help for the county. I don’t believe she is open to listening to people which was expressed last week, when she shut down the meeting, which wasn’t even started. I don’t understand why. There was a lot of people there that wanted to speak."

Hillsdale County Medical Care Facility Administrator Terry Esterline spoke in support of Burns.

“As far as I’m concerned, our relationship with the county health department, it’s never been better,” he said. “Anytime we need something here at the medical care facility, anytime we need something, we need some direction, we need some clarification, we get it. One phone call and we get it.”

Branch County resident John Hutchinson said the important question is "whether Rebecca Burns is doing what she is supposed to be doing under her contract. Is she meeting her obligations under that contract? The fact that people don’t like policies that come from Washington or Lansing is not a reason to not renew her contract. From all that I have seen, particularly from the great detail that’s given in the recent statements that she has made on COVID backed up by lots of scientific evidence that is widely accepted. It’s my view that she’s done her job quite well.”

After a closed session that last about an hour and a half, the health agency board renewed Burns’ contract for one year and a gave her a $3,500 merit based pay increase, bringing her salary to $89,774 starting in January 2022.

Her salary after the raise is 18.6 percent less than comparable health officer salaries in Michigan, according to St. Joseph County Commissioner Jared Hoffmaster who also sits on the Board of Health.

Hoffmaster said he is against mask mandates, vaccine mandates and close contact quarantine mandates but was in support of Burns.

“We are living in unprecedented times. Anyone who disagrees is only fooling themselves,” he said. “Our local health officials are making extremely difficult decisions in what I feel is a very thoughtful way. There is no playbook for this and I truly feel they are doing what they feel is best for public safety.”

He continued by saying Burns listens to the board and is thoughtful with her decision making.

“I believe she does take input from the public,” Hoffmaster said. “I believe she is instituting the policies that are being handed down to her from Washington and Lansing. I believe any health officer should be evaluated on an annual basis to make sure their agenda lines up with the agenda of the boards. This is why I supposed a one year contract versus a three year contract.”

Burns is far from the only health official that has been under the gun during the pandemic. According to the National Association of County and City Health Officials Government and Public Affairs Chief Adriane Casalotti more than 500 local health officials have left their posts.

“That is one in six communities across the country that have a new a health professional now than they had at the beginning of the pandemic,” she said. “When they leave it’s not just a person who leaves the building, it’s their expertise and their leadership. It makes it a lot harder for the people in the health department to do their job.”

Which has impacted morale in local health agencies.

“The fact that we’re going almost on two years now, that is hard,” she said. “When you’re running a marathon, you know where the finish line is and you can just get there. On COVID, the finish line keeps moving so every time you think you might be there, you might be able to slow down a little bit, get back to your other priorities, something new happens and it continues.”

They have seen many health officers targeted for their efforts to enforce pandemic protocols.

“Folks are also tired. It’s really hard to be angry at a virus. It’s a little bit easier to be angry at someone whose name you know and whose face you see,” she said. “But, at the same time those health officials, the rules they make they live under too. They’re there in the community and their whole goal is to try and get us to the end of this pandemic as quickly and as safely as possible.”

The board approved Burns’ contract five to one. Hillsdale County Commissioner Brent Leininger did not vote in favor of it. We reached out to Leininger who did not comment.

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