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Lynn Westberg resigns post at health department

Following 24 years as executive director of the San Juan Basin Health Department (SJBHD), Lynn Westberg tendered her resignation last Friday, effective no later than April 30. Her departure apparently comes a year earlier than originally planned.

Westberg’s announcement came in the form of a letter to the department board of directors, dated Friday, Nov. 13. In it, she explained, “During the past several months the focus and priorities of the Board have changed, and I have reached the conclusion that no matter what I do, it is highly unlikely that I will ever fully satisfy the objectives of some of the current Board members.”

While acknowledging her premature exit and the April deadline, she continued, saying, “I would consider leaving earlier if a suitable replacement were found. Over the next few months I plan to continue to lead the Department as we continue to provide a full range of services while getting through the H1N1 pandemic as unscathed as possible. I would also hope to assist a new director in engaging community partners, many with whom I have worked over a period of several decades, in the upcoming community assessment process.”

To open her letter, Westberg expressed pride in the department’s growth throughout her tenure. “I am proud of the manner in which the Department has grown in response to identified community needs and the ‘cutting edge’ programs it has implemented to address those needs,” she wrote. “I have felt particularly privileged to lead the talented and dedicated staff who have chosen to work so diligently to protect and promote the public health, and who have remained committed to the Department and the community in spite of salaries that have been consistently below market level.”

Westberg also expressed gratification in working with “a wonderfully collaborative community that has always (been) willing to put aside turf issues for the greater good.”

When asked in a Tuesday phone interview what she meant by “community,” she spoke of several social organizations within Archuleta and La Plata counties, including various human services, healthcare providers and school administrations.

Though Westberg insists the SJBHD is a great department, she affirmed real disappointment with the apparent lack of support shown by at least some board members.

“A lot of what’s happening with the department has been politically driven by the La Plata County representatives on the board,” she claimed in Tuesday’s interview. “At one point, the county even talked of pulling out of the department. The board is not really supportive.”

Though a June 2009 Fiscal Monitoring Review by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment generally reflected department financial management systems as “adequate and in good working order,” Westberg said, “The perception that certain Board members are not supportive of the Department and staff has been extremely detrimental to morale and has renewed agitation among members of the community, neither of which is beneficial to the functioning of the agency or to the public health.”

Archuleta County Commissioner Bob Moomaw is a member of the SJBHD board, and suggests the seeming dissension between the board and Westberg was, “ ... all brought on by Senate Bill 194, which reorganized state health departments.”

In a Tuesday phone interview, Moomaw said that by June 1 of this year, a new SJBND board had been appointed, including La Plata Commissioner Kellie Hotter, La Plata County Manager Shawn Nau, former Durango City Manager Bob Ledger and Archuleta County Administrator Greg Schulte. He added that the new appointees were included to bring budgeting experience to the department. He also said that Nau and Schulte would occupy board positions for just one year.

According to Moomaw, La Plata County commissioners and the SJBHD board have expressed concern over recent accounting practices at the department and felt a new approach was in order.

“She’d been there a long time,” Moomaw added, “and really grew the department. She’s done an extremely good job over the years and built up a nice reserve, but with the change in emphasis and increased accounting requirements, it was time for a change.”

Moomaw didn’t elaborate on the increased accounting requirements, or who might have imposed them, but he did say Westberg and the board mutually agreed that she retire at the end of January, while remaining as a consultant until April 30.

“It’s a win-win all the way around,” Moomaw said Tuesday. “It was not an act of termination or anything like that. Lynn felt she needed to move on and is willing to help a new director get up to speed. She rightfully has a great deal of pride in her accomplishments there.”

Before hanging up, Moomaw emphasized, “Lynn did not get fired, both she and the board are working together to bring about a smooth transition.”

While submitting her resignation, Westberg also offered heartfelt advice toward the search for her replacement. “While I understand some of you would like to find a director with a strong business background, I am concerned that if this becomes the priority, the public health will suffer. I would encourage you to rather seek a strong public health leader and advocate.”

She went on to say, “ … Administrative directors are the public health version of CFOs, and have very different responsibilities than public health directors. Public health directors statewide, are doctors, environmental health specialists, and a lot of nurses.”

In conclusion, she added, “ … as you may be aware, my position includes, in addition to being agency director, serving as division director for the six programs serving the elderly and disabled, as R.N. coordinator of the Children’s Diagnostic Evaluation Clinic, and as incident command for disease emergencies, including being on call for communicable disease. All these require medical as well as public health background and experience.”

During Westberg’s long-standing tenure, she led department development from an agency with 28 employees, 31 programs and an annual budget of $600,000, to one with 91 regular employees, 70 different programs and a $6.3 million annual budget.

chuck@pagosasun.com