Lewis County Board of Health Fires Health Officers

Melnick and Krager Are Out as Two County Commissioners Seek Local Candidates


The Lewis County Board of Health terminated the contract of Health Officer Alan Melnick and Deputy Health Officer Steven Krager during its meeting Monday.

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. 

At the time they were hired, Melnick and Krager served Clark, Pacific, Cowlitz, Skamania and Wahkiakum counties. Their contract with Lewis County was renewed in November.

Commissioner Sean Swope kicked off the board’s discussion on the heath officers’ contract with a motion to terminate it. Commissioner Lee Grose seconded the motion.

Swope said he initially agreed to the decision to hire Melnick and Krager on the condition that the board could find a suitable, local replacement within a year. With that timeframe expiring, Swope said he decided it was time to take action.

“I waited for this opportunity to put (out a job search), and what I don’t want to see happen … is that we get a list of doctors that want the position, but because we have Dr. Alan Melnick, we’re all of the sudden in a position where we’re measuring that health officer against Dr. Alan Melnick. I think this gives us a clean slate,” Swope said.

Monday marked the beginning of a 90-day window during which a new health officer should be recruited.

Commissioner Lindsey Pollock, who gave a dissenting vote on the matter, said she was against the termination because she didn’t think it was a necessary precursor to searching for a new candidate.

“My concern (is) if we terminate first and look for another position second, and we get caught out at the end of that 90 days without an applicant in there, we come directly under state control. I don’t want to be under state control,” Pollock said.

Swope said he knows of two doctors who will apply.

When pressed on whether the doctors in question had a master’s degree in public health, which Pollock said was a requirement for the position, Swope said they did not.

However, he said it is possible to hire outside of those credentials since Yakima County currently has a health officer without a master’s in public health and because there are plenty of opportunities for training those hired.

During public comment, Brandon Svenson, mayor of Winlock and chair of the Lewis County Republicans, gave comments in support of bringing in a Lewis County local to the position.

“I’m all for local control,” Svenson said. “Anytime you ask me about local control, I’m going to be all for it. I do want to make sure that when we are looking for the person for this role. I do want to make sure of that person is local and represents Lewis County.”

Kelsi Hamilton, a Chehalis resident who serves on the school board, was also in favor of local control.

Hamilton said she was initially concerned when Melnick and Krager were hired because she'd heard they were unwilling to meet with concerned citizens about public health matters in Clark County, particularly parents who were concerned with health policies that affected their children’s schooling.

“My opinion as a constituent as to discuss the contract of the health officer is that Lewis County should have a health officer that is rooted right here in Lewis County,” Hamilton said, adding later: “I personally feel that having someone from Lewis County as helping make decisions for Lewis County, it would help with community buy-in and respect for the decisions being made. … When we can exercise local control, we should.”

Chris Rust, superintendent for Toledo School District, who has been part of the Health Officer Advisory Board group with members in representation for Lewis County Public Health and Social Services, was the only person in favor of retention of the contract out of five commenters.

“As I listen to the arguments behind a health officer that lives in Lewis County, I hear the phrase, ‘local control,’” Rust said. “I worry that this translates into making decisions based on political perspectives rather than on public health perspectives. Somehow there seems to be a concern that the health officers that we have had have not made decisions that align with the thinking of residents. I don’t believe this to be the case.”

Rust said he sees the value in a more regional coordination of health policies, which would align with having a health officer that serves multiple counties.

“Our current health officer — and Dr. Wood preceding him — made decisions based on public health data that was coming out and aligning with our department of health,” he said, adding later: “I would like to encourage the board of health to retain our current health officer. I think he’s doing a tremendous job for us.”

During Krager’s update on public health, in which he presented on how the state’s opioid overdose rates have seen a considerable uptick in the last two years, he pleaded his case.

“I know our contract is going to be discussed, and I just wanted to take the opportunity to discuss my gratitude to be able to serve the people of Lewis County, and serve the board of health as the deputy health officer. … I hope to continue that work,” Krager said.

In the end, Grose sought to take the middle ground in the debate of his peers, though he ultimately sided in favor of termination.

“I’m all in favor of local control as many of the people who spoke today were,” Grose said. “I’m not sure that that’s the total answer, but I do believe that the local position and (a) local public health officer would serve Lewis County. I just think that we, as a community, would be better served by someone local. But I do believe also, and I believe this is a requirement … that any applicants for this job need to either have their public health officer certification or be well on their way to earning that certification.”