BLOOMINGTON — The hostility between Health Department Administrator Walt Howe and some County Board members is chronicled in more than 4,000 pages of emails sent between Howe and the health’s board three officers, whose personal attacks of county officials and efforts to control the board without consulting with other members have raised questions about how the board operates.
The conflict, kept under control at public meetings, is openly expressed in the emails, obtained by The Pantagraph through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The majority of the emails focus on challenging county officials over handling of mental health funding and the authority of the health board to manage health department operations. Resentment by Howe, board president Becky Powell, vice president Jane Turley and secretary Cory Tello toward the County Board and county Administrator Bill Wasson over formation of the county board’s Health Committee also is outlined in the documents.
The Health Committee was formed last year as part of the County Board's efforts to improve mental health services, with the goal of bringing information to the board about the health department, beyond the agency's annual budget review. Howe has complained that the committee's requests for presentations and data is burdensome on him and his staff.
But Howe’s rocky relationship with the County Board goes back at least two years, to negotiations between the Board of Health and the County Board about transferring oversight of McLean County Animal Control from the health department to the county's administration.
“We are at a point that the County Board has turned into a feeding frenzy. As you can see they are trying to out-do one another on being the community watchdog,” Howe wrote in a February 2014 email to Powell, Turley and Tello during discussions about animal control.
He went on to characterize the board members as being “in this power crazed whirlwind and feel angry that they cannot control some aspects of what they perceive to be County programming that should be under their control.”
“They are now seeing ghosts under every bed and around every corner,” Howe said.
The harshest words for county officials came from Turley, who referred to Wasson as “a manipulative snake” in a February 2016 e-mail in which she advised Powell and Howe to “make sure you document all dealings with him — times, dates, e-mails, everything.”
Wasson said he has not read the emails and had no comment on Turley's remark.
When asked about the negative references Friday, Howe said "I don't condone name calling. I know people made comments in frustration, but there's no good reason for it."
In an email response to questions from The Pantagraph about the tenor of the emails, Powell agreed that health board officers expressed frustration "and could have done so in a more professional and constructive manner," adding that "we don't believe it has ever been the intent of a Board member to malign anyone's public image" in an email exchange.
Powell, who is not seeking reappointment when her term ends in July, shared Howe’s negative sentiments about the Health Committee. In emails, she asked health department staff and Howe to track the amount of time they spent preparing for the committee meetings.
In a 2015 email to Howe about how to handle the Health Committee, Turley suggested “we give them what they want, but tailor it to the information we want made public.”
Last week, County Board Chairman John McIntyre said he had heard about, but not seen, the emails. He disagreed with Howe’s view that the County Board is trying to encroach on the Board of Health's authority to run the agency.
County Board member Carlo Robustelli, who was referenced by Turley in a quote from "The Godfather" related to one's enemies, said he has concerns about the communications.
"The leadership of the Board of Health and director Howe have conducted themselves in a way that is antit-ethical to democracy," said Robustelli, noting health board members may have violated the Open Meetings Act and "making it clear that they had no intention of working collaboratively, transparently and respectfully with elected officials, the county administrator and even members of their own board."
At the root of much of the discourse is the issue of authority given to the health board by state statute. Howe contends the law is clear that the only “oversight” the County Board has over his department is the authority to set the tax levy for funding and to appoint people to the 11-member health board.
The health department’s attendance at the Health Committee is meant to foster cooperation, said McIntyre, who called the negative attitude “frustrating in light of what we are trying to accomplish.”
County Board member Ben Owens, who also serves as the liaison to the Board of Health, said things began to change in early 2016 when he and several other members began to question how Howe's agency was doing things.
Questions from county board member Laurie Wollrab on Open Meetings Act issues and a call from Owens and health board member Judy Buchanan to review the board’s bylaws also were met with resistance, he said.
“I had a feeling some things were brought up and would go nowhere. You had a ‘yes’ board that didn’t question Howe,” said Owens.