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Critics say recent St. Joseph County Board of Health appointees politically motivated, inexperienced

St. Joseph County Commissioners Derek Dieter (left) and Deb Fleming (right) listen as Commissioner Andy Kostielney (center) gives remarks on redistricting during a November 2021 meeting.
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St. Joseph County Commissioners Derek Dieter (left) and Deb Fleming (right) listen as Commissioner Andy Kostielney (center) gives remarks on redistricting during a November 2021 meeting.

The St. Joseph County Commissioners have made two new appointments to the county Board of Health this year. But some critics say the chosen candidates have been politically motivated, rather than what’s best for the health of the community.

Appointments to the board used to be split. Three were made by the county commissioners, three by the mayor of South Bend, and one by the mayor of Mishawaka.

But the Indiana Legislature changed that several years ago, giving the commissioners the sole authority. Board members serve staggered, four-year terms, so it’s not an immediate transition.

The all-Republican body has already made two appointments this year because of resignations, and they’ll get to make three more before the year is over — two in August, and one in December.

In June, the commissioners unanimously chose Dr. Theresa Cruthird, an anesthesiologist who co-founded and co-owns Generations Adventureplex, a Mishawaka entertainment complex featuring an arcade, laser tag, axe throwing and bowling.

She replaced James Shoemaker, an Elkhart doctor who was also appointed by the commissioners and resigned earlier this year.

But Cruthird was not one of the four recommendations current Board of Health members made as to who should fill the seat, after reviewing CVs and conducting interviews.

Instead, the board recommended Dr. Keith Sherry, a now semi-retired clinical emergency medicine physician who worked at Beacon Memorial Hospital’s emergency department for almost 35 years and served as co-medical director of county EMS response from 1993 until last year.

There was also Jennifer Beam, a Family Nurse Practitioner at HealthLinc Centennial, which is a federally qualified community health center that provides comprehensive primary and preventative medical care to persons of any age, regardless of ability to pay.

There was Yolanda Washington, a registered nurse who works for St. Joseph County Head Start.

And finally, there was Latorya Greene. She directs community health, wellbeing and tobacco initiatives for Saint Joseph Health System and serves as policy coordinator for Smoke Free St. Joe Coalition.

She also serves as the board president for local HIV/AIDS prevention organization Imani Unidad, and worked at AIDS Ministries/AIDS Assist for 13 years before joining St. Joseph Health System.

Greene said she tries to attend every Board of Health meeting. She said the department is currently on the “forefront” of health issues.

“They’re not wanting to just make the statement for the sake of making the statement,” Greene said. “They actually want to have the action that’s placed behind it, as well.”

But as someone with an extensive public health career, Greene said she’s “not aware” of Cruthird’s experience in that area.

“A number of different forums that I’ve attended, I’ve never seen them present, or anything like that,” Greene said. “So, I was kind of curious as to why they selected that candidate.”

Dr. Don Westerhausen is a cardiologist and the Democratic candidate for the District 1 county commissioner seat, currently held by outgoing Republican commissioner Andy Kostielney.

He said something similar happened in February — the board made its recommendations, but the commissioners instead unanimously chose Ellen Reilander, an attorney who graduated from the University of Notre Dame law school.

“The people who were being interviewed were much better educated, were much better qualified, and had a lot more experience than the people that they picked,” Westerhausen said. “That was my beef about the whole thing.”

Indiana law mandates two board members must be from the public and not the medical community, so Reilander fills one of those spots.

State law also requires that no more than four board members be from the same political party. According to county voter registration data obtained by WVPE, three board members — President Heidi Beidinger-Burnett, Dr. Ilana Kirsch and Dr. Michelle Migliore — most recently voted in Democratic primaries.

Three more members — Vice President Dr. Jason Marker, John Linn and Ellen Reilander — most recently voted in Republican primaries. Shoemaker, who Cruthird replaced, did as well.

In contrast, Cruthird’s voting history stands out. She’s never voted in any primary election in Indiana, and most recently voted during the 2016 and 2018 general elections. Therefore, she’s considered an independent for purposes of serving on the board.

But in Westerhausen's view, both appointments this year have been politically motivated.

“I do really believe that the commissioners are not making these appointments with the thought of what’s best for the health of the county,” Westerhausen said. “I also think they’re not making these appointments with people who respect science and respect facts.”

Public health itself has become more politicized over the past several years, an effect of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In response, conservatives across the United States have pushed back on the power of health departments — in 2021, Republican legislators in 26 U.S. states, including Indiana, passed laws limiting the powers of public health officials.

Under a law passed by the legislature last year over Gov. Eric Holcomb’s veto, local health officials in the Hoosier state can no longer impose emergency rules — like mask mandates — stricter than those at the state level. Now, local legislative bodies such as county commissioners or city councils will have to enact those restrictions instead.

Over the past few years, the St. Joseph County Department of Health has supported mask mandates and COVID-19 vaccines. In July 2020, the Board of Health declared racism a public health crisis in a 7 to 0 vote.

And following the overturn of Roe v. Wade in June, the department released a statement urging Indiana legislators to maintain access to abortion in light of rape, incest, fatal fetal abnormalities and in cases where the mother’s life was at risk, a move which some — including county commissioner Deb Fleming — have criticized.

Reilander is also a critic. Since joining the board in February, she’s asked a lot of abortion-related questions during its monthly meetings.

On June 17, she asked several questions about the work of the department’s Fetal Infant Mortality Review team.

It’s an advisory group of medical professionals that gives the health department recommendations on how to reduce fetal and infant mortality in the county.

Dr. Ilana Kirsch, a fellow board member who is also part of that team, responded to Reilander at one point during the 20-minute discussion.

Reilander and Kirsch — June 17, 2022

Later on, Reilander asked about that draft the department of health was developing on maintaining abortion access in Indiana.

“Can we get drafts of that work that’s being done?” Reilander said. “Can we just come to the meetings and observe?”

County health officer Dr. Bob Einterz runs the health department and is appointed by the Board of Health. He nodded in response, but then asked if Reilander had an objection to those exemptions.

Reilander and Einterz — June 17, 2022

“Participate with them — go ahead,” Einterz said. “There isn’t anything in what you just said in terms of decreasing maternal and infant mortality that they are doing that would go against anything that you believe in.”

“I know, it’s fetal mortality that I’m concerned about,” Reilander said.

And during the board’s most recent July 20 meeting, Reilander added an agenda item, seconded by Cruthird, to discuss how press releases are sent out and how they’re vetted by the board in response to that abortion access press release.

“I think it would have been foolhardy to think that this wouldn’t have been controversial,” Reilander said.

In response, Einterz said more than 90 percent of Americans believe that women whose life is at risk during pregnancy should have the right to get an abortion, and that the numbers are similar for cases of rape, incest and fatal fetal abnormality.

But the discussion eventually got heated after Einterz brought up the case of the 10-year-old rape victim who recently traveled to Indiana for an abortion due to Ohio’s six-week ban and compared it to hypothetical actions by Reilander’s son.

Reilander and Einterz — July 20, 2022

Even though Reilander isn’t a medical professional, Greene said that in her view, all board members should come in with some background knowledge on the work of the department.

“People are being appointed who don’t have any history or don’t have any information or education in regard to health issues and the problems in the community,” Greene said. “In all honesty, you should already know of these things before you join the Board of Health.”

She said that doesn’t mean board members shouldn’t ask questions. Instead, it’s the intent behind them that matters.

“If you’re asking questions for the sake of just asking questions, that’s not moving us in any direction that we need to go on,” Greene said. “Now we’re focused on your question, as opposed to the issue at hand.”

So far, Cruthird’s most notable comments during a meeting were indirectly prompted by Reilander. They came on July 20, right after the back-and-forth between Reilander and Einterz that grew so heated that board president Heidi Beidinger-Burnett had to call for order.

“To take abortion off the table, and just talk about what the next controversial issue might be — if we can decide if are there things that we as a board want to able to chime in on?” Cruthird said.

Cruthird suggested developing a system to handle press releases for all “controversial” topics, so that board members who disagree with health department actions could make that clear.

“Sometimes we’re not all going to agree, and that’s ok,” Cruthird said. “But the people who don’t agree can say hey, you know, I really didn’t agree with that.”

I wanted to get Cruthird and Reilander’s side of the story, and so I approached them at the July Board of Health meeting. Cruthird initially agreed to an interview, but later declined. Reilander declined to be interviewed.

But the board seat is not the first time Cruthird has been appointed by the county commissioners. In May 2021, they chose her to fill one of the seven seats on the county’s Judicial Nominating Commission, which evaluates candidates for any open local judgeships and then sends five nominees to the governor.

The commissioners other two appointees are attorney Jamie O’Brien, a Republican who formerly served on the county council, and realtor Joseph Grabill, who filed a lawsuit in conjunction with the St. Joseph County Republican Party in 2020 alleging political bias in how the commission chose judicial nominees. All three have terms running until May 2025.

So, what do the commissioners think? It’s a bit unclear.

President Andy Kostielney never responded to several calls and voicemails seeking to set up an interview.

Vice President Deb Fleming declined to be interviewed, but she did say that Reilander was one of her “regular suggestions” for the Board of Health, and that Cruthird was a suggestion of hers, as well.

And Derek Dieter said he couldn’t remember if the commissioners got and reviewed the recommendations from Board of Health members for the June appointment.

“We get packets that come to us and then we review them, and if they sent something — they may have — we all just review the information we get from people who send in, and we take a pick,” Dieter said.

When asked if the commissioners plan to reappoint Marker and Linn this August, as well as Kirsch in December, Dieter said he doesn’t know, and that he’s not aware yet if they plan on re-upping.

He said he’s had issues with the health department’s work in the past — citing pandemic-related mask requirements as one example — but that overall, he “thinks they do a very good job.”

“They’re the health department for St. Joe County, so they make medical decisions based on their knowledge of medicine, and that’s basically their call,” Dieter said.

But as to whether the two recent appointments were politically motivated, Greene says it all goes back to the actions of the commissioners.

And based on those actions, she said “it seems like that’s exactly what their agenda is — to have more of a conservative Board of Health.”

If that’s not the case?

“Well, then show us proof otherwise,” Greene said. “And if you’re not able to show the proof otherwise, then we can only come with the assumption that no, this is exactly what it is, and you do have an agenda.”

She said the ultimate goal of the department — and of the board — is improving the health of the community.

“And that is what our county commissioners need to make sure they are in line with,” Greene said.

Contact Jakob at jlazzaro@wvpe.org or follow him on Twitter at @JakobLazzaro.

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Corrected: August 1, 2022 at 6:18 PM EDT
Correction: A previous version of this story said Latorya Greene previously worked at Imani Unidad for 13 years. That is incorrect. She previously worked at AIDS Ministries/AIDS Assist for 13 years and currently serves as Imani Unidad's board president.
Jakob Lazzaro comes to Indiana from Chicago, where he graduated from Northwestern University in 2020 with a degree in Journalism and a double major in History. Before joining WVPE, he wrote NPR's Source of the Week e-mail newsletter, and previously worked for CalMatters, Pittsburgh's 90.5 WESA and North by Northwestern.