Cowlitz County health officers resign after county board of health votes down their contract renewals


Cowlitz County Health Officer Alan Melnick and Deputy Health Officer Steve Krager elected to resign effective Sunday after the Cowlitz County Board of Health voted not to renew the county's contract with Clark County Public Health. 

If a new health officer is not appointed before Jan. 1, Cowlitz County Health and Human Services may be unable to provide services such as birth and death certificates, Cowlitz County Health Communications Manager Kristin Young said. Customers can order them through the Washington State Department of Health instead, but should plan ahead because receiving the order will take between one and three weeks. 

The decision to not renew the health officers' contract was made at the county board of health's last regular meeting for the year, and the board has not announced any additional meetings to discuss the issue before January. 

Melnick said he and Krager resigned to ensure that Cowlitz County could not continue to use their signatures on documents like birth and death certificates while the county searches for new health officers because he was concerned about potential legal liability. 

"I can't be responsible for communicable disease control as a physician, having people work under my standing orders, when I'm not the health officer," Melnick said. 

Melnick and Krager, who work for Clark County Public Health, also serve as health officers for Cowlitz, Pacific, Skamania and Wahkiakum Counties.

Cowlitz County's contract for health officer services expires at the end of the year, and the Cowlitz County Board of Health put out a request for bids instead of renewing the contract. Clark County Public Health submitted the only application, but the Cowlitz County Board of Health voted at their Nov. 21 meeting to instead explore alternative options.

"I thought our health officer hasn't been as helpful as we hoped for," Cowlitz County Commissioner and Board of Health member Arne Mortensen said at the meeting. "I think that group has failed us ... and I will not sign anything that resembles a continuation of that."

Mortensen said he was unwilling to continue the existing contract because he believed Krager, the primary contact for Cowlitz County, demonstrated bias and did not provide balanced enough information in his response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Mortensen said he would be willing to consider hiring Krager directly instead of through Clark County. 

Boards of health are required by state law to appoint county health officers. If a board is unable to do so, one will be appointed by the state until the board can fill the position, but the law does not specify a timeframe for this. 

County health officers are responsible for enforcing state health statutes and preventing the spread of contagious diseases. During situations like the pandemic, they have the authority to implement emergency measures as necessary with the help of local healthcare and law enforcement agencies. They also sign birth and death certificates, food handler's certificates and standing physician's orders regarding how health providers should respond to cases of specific diseases or environmental contaminants like lead.

Krager and Melnick previously worked as Lewis County's health officers. 

The Lewis County Board of Health terminated the contracts of Melnick and Krager in March 2022. 

Melnick and Krager were hired in February 2021 to replace Dr. Rachel Wood, who resigned in September 2020. The termination of the contract requires 90 days notice, so they will remain as health officers for the county during that time.