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Hinting at the controversy stirred over the past year by COVID-19, the Kootenai County Board of County Commissioners is actively recruiting candidates for a seat on the Panhandle Health Board.
In a press release, the commissioners said the pandemic that confronted the health board in 2020 inspired them to perform their due diligence to fill the seat currently occupied by Jai Nelson.
“Given the increased level of public interest regarding health district decisions, we feel obligated to conduct an extensive search for this critical representative position,” Commissioner Chris Fillios said in the statement.
Nelson, a registered nurse, holds the seat until the end of her second term in June. She has drawn the ire of the anti-mask community for championing the need for mask mandates throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. That ire that has led to intermittent mask-burning barbecues and protests countywide since the initial mandate was handed down in July. A mandate issued in the five northernmost counties currently runs through April.
“Jai Nelson has served as a Board of Health representative for Kootenai County for 10 years and has done admirable work in that capacity,” Fillios said. “Her knowledge of both health care and county government have given her a unique insight into the complex work done by the health board.”
The call for candidates does not mean Nelson will not serve a third term. Nancy Jones, communications manager for Kootenai County, said Fillios reached out to Nelson and stressed that the commissioners welcome her to apply for her third term.
“For that matter, we don’t know one way or the other if she would want to come back,” Jones said.
Repeated attempts by The Press to reach Nelson were unsuccessful. While all members of the health board faced criticism during the pandemic. Then-Boundary County board member Walt Kirby famously washed his hands of the entire matter as the board initially voted to rescind a mask mandate in October, saying he’d received a wave of angry calls.
Nelson and Dr. Richard McLandress, the two most consistent proponents of mask mandates during the course of the pandemic, have drawn the brunt of public outcry. But in a phone interview Friday, Fillios said the county-wide call for candidates has nothing to do with Nelson’s service on the board.
“Just the opposite,” Fillios said. “I encouraged her to re-apply.”
Fillios said the county ordinarily seeks out applicants for health board positions, and that the commissioners from the five northernmost counties ordinarily have few applicants to choose from. But he also stressed these were anything but ordinary times.
“In this case, possibly because of the controversy surrounding COVID-19, there have been more people voicing interest in the board,” Fillios said.
He refuted any insinuation the call for applicants was an indictment of Nelson, adding that the commissioners have a track record of supporting the health board’s decisions, particularly in the past year.
“As of the result of the mask mandate, we’ve had people come to us asking to replace Jai or Dr. McLandress,” Fillios said. “And I’ve remained steadfast in telling them, ‘I won’t do that.’ [Nelson] has served admirably. She’s a nurse, for goodness sake. She has the expertise that has been invaluable. No, we would do this if any board member’s term expired. It just so happens that hers is up.”
Those calling for Nelson’s and McLandress’s removal, he added, aren’t necessarily the majority, but just the loudest.
“There have been plenty of people who support the mask mandate,” he said.
Anyone interested in submitting their names for consideration are asked to email a current resume and cover letter to the Board of Commissioners email@example.com or via mail to Board of Kootenai County Commissioners, P.O. Box 9000, Coeur d’Alene, ID 83816. Submissions must be received no later than 5 p.m. on March 26. A majority vote of the commissioners from Shoshone, Benewah, Kootenai, Boundary and Bonner counties is required to appoint someone to the board.
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