How an angry, divided board of health pushed a health officer to resign

The health officer for six counties in northern Michigan has resigned after months of opposition. In-fighting on the regional board of health led to her early departure. 

In late August, Health Department of Northwest Michigan Health Officer Lisa Peacock and Medical Director Josh Meyerson looked at increasing COVID-19 numbers with concern.

The Friday before many students were set to return to school, the health department decided to set up a mask mandate.

Many community members were furious, and they showed up in force at the first board of health meeting in Charlevoix in September.

Over 120 people showed up in person to that meeting. Jenni Attie was one of them. She’s a family nurse practitioner in Petoskey, and she supported universal masking in schools.

“We were just trying to show up but we were more than outnumbered. And I mean people were playing music like sheep sounds from their cell phones when people were trying to talk. It was very volatile,” Attie says.

Health Department of Northwest Michigan Health Officer Lisa Peacock

Attie left two hours in to pick up her kids from school and watched the Zoom meeting, which was hacked by people trying to create a disturbance.

“[They were] swearing and [putting up] pornographic imaging. And it was just awful. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Attie says.

The Board of Health of the Health Department of Northwest Michigan is made up of commissioners from Antrim, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties. Most of them criticized Peacock for the mask mandate.

During that September meeting, the board passed a resolution to block it, but since Peacock didn’t rescind her order, it had no legal weight.

Peacock felt tensions were so high she needed to be escorted by police from the building.

“When people are in those board meetings and they are moving closer as they’re yelling at you and interrupting [you] while you’re trying to present data and facts to the board of health, it’s all just very rattling,” Peacock says. “Those experiences are just hard to get out of your mind and you just feel … like you’re being terrorized.”

Soon after that, she took a medical leave.

Following the September meeting, two board members from Emmet County who had been critical of her resigned.

But opposition to Peacock remained strong.

Board members put forward a motion to fire her in November, but it failed.

Then some members of the board tried to fire its attorney because she was seen as sympathetic to Peacock.

In January, Antrim County commissioners voted to remove its own commissioner, Karen Bargy, as the chair of the Board of Health, because she supported Peacock.

Charlie MacInnis, a member of the board of health from Emmet County, came in after the two other commissioners resigned.

MacInnis says he was shocked by the dysfunction.

“It remains the singularly most unpleasant board experience that I’d ever had in my life,” MacInnis says. “And I’m told that in many places anger has become the norm in public settings. And this one is right in there.”

“It remains the singularly most unpleasant board experience that I’d ever had in my life. And I’m told that in many places anger has become the norm in public settings. And this one is right in there.” — Charlie MacInnis, a member of the board of health from Emmet County

Despite efforts from her employer to sanction her, Peacock continued to show up to meetings. But her frustration with the board was growing. She suspected the chaos at the meeting in September was coordinated by some of the hostile board members.

Peacock filed a complaint with the Charlevoix Police Department alleging some members of the board broke state laws, including: obstruction of person enforcing health lawintimidation of public officer, violating the Open Meetings Act and willful neglect of duty.

An investigation was opened locally and then referred to the Charlevoix Prosecutor’s Office. But in December, the office declined to authorize charges because they didn’t find any evidence of crimes.

Meanwhile, members of the community continue to be outspoken on both sides. Over 100 people in Emmet County paid to take out a full-page ad in the Petoskey News-Review supporting the health department.

Those opposed to the mandate kept showing up to board meetings and filed lawsuits against the health department.

The most vocal opponents took to harassing Peacock. She says she got hundreds of Christmas cards with obscene language. And on Thanksgiving a police officer showed up at her door after someone in the community filed a false complaint against her.

Peacock says it wasn’t the public pressure that got to her but the lack of support from her board.

“I’ve been told I deserve the treatment that I got from the public,” Peacock says.

She thought things would settle down after she dropped the mask mandate last week, when COVID-19 numbers had fallen.

But next week, the board plans to discuss cutting some of the funding that counties pay toward the health department. And that was the final straw for Peacock. Her resignation is effective April 29.

Some in the community are disappointed about Peacock’s departure because of the programs she’s spearheaded. She brought behavioral psychiatrists into schools to address students’ mental health needs.

“They did things up here they were way ahead of the curve,” says Attie. “They were doing behavioral health services in schools to the point where they really need it now.”

Attie says she’s not sure how the health department will be able to attract talent to fill Peacock’s shoes.

“I just don’t know during times like this that we’ll find people like that right now. I’m sure they’re out there but who would want to subject themselves to this type of volatility?” Attie says.

There’s one thing she can do, she says, and that’s to use her vote to elect the people she wants to see on the board.

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Author

  • Taylor Wizner

    Taylor Wizner is passionate about empowering communities through solid reporting. She graduated from Columbia Journalism School and the University of Michigan, and has interned for NPR's flagship show, "All Things Considered."