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Public alleges Health Board member’s behavior ‘reckless’

by KIANNA GARDNER
Daily Inter Lake | April 16, 2020 4:55 PM

Many community members who tuned into the Flathead City-County Board of Health’s virtual meeting on Thursday asked board members and the county commissioners to consider removing Dr. Annie Bukacek from her position on the board, citing an incident in which she organized members of the public to protest the city of Kalispell’s recent state-of-emergency declaration, among others.

The Kalispell City Council made the declaration earlier this month to access funding to better-combat expenses related to the COVID-19 outbreak, according to City Manager Doug Russell. But despite government and health officials’ guidelines to social distance and shelter-in-place, Bukacek organized about 40 members of the public to protest the declaration in public, maintaining the city was trying to “usher in martial law.”

Those at the virtual Health Board meeting described this decision and others as “reckless behavior” and alleged Bukacek is “divisive and puts us all at risk.”

One commenter said the Kalispell physician, who has vocally challenged the use of vaccinations and says she is “pro-informed choice” — has a “duty and obligation” to abide by policies set forth at the state and county levels to address the coronavirus outbreak. The commenter said by organizing the protest and by helping to organize a “mass gathering” at the Liberty Fellowship Church for an Easter service, Bukacek violated shelter-in-place orders and social-distancing recommendations.

During the meeting Bukacek was outspoken on her opinion of the stay-at-home order. She pointed to long-term care and assisted-living facilities where elderly residents — who, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are a high-risk group for the virus — are currently unable to interact with their families. Facilities valley-wide have closed their doors to non-essential visitors in an effort to protect older adults from contracting COVID-19.

Bukacek said she believes it’s “cruel” they can’t see their families and that they are “languishing lonely.” She suggested the board make a recommendation of some sort to long-term care facilities that they open their doors to family members.

But other board members said the measures are necessary in order to protect some of the area’s most vulnerable residents. Board member Tamalee St. James Robinson and others referred to recent events in Toole County where residents and staff of an assisted-living facility in Shelby tested positive for coronavirus.

Four of Montana’s seven COVID-related deaths have come from the county.

In response to Bukacek wanting to reopen long-term and assisted care facilities to family members, Flathead County Commissioner Phil Mitchell said, “hell no."

“Look what happened in Shelby. Someone brought the virus into that facility and now people are dead,” said Mitchell, who added he believes Bukacek has “overstepped her boundaries” and that he is “disappointed in what she has done with her platform as a board member.”

Almost every member of the public who commented during the meeting called on the county commissioners to remove Bukacek from the board.

“In spite of many public comments, the county commissioners will not place this item on a future agenda,” said Cherilyn DeVries with the local Love Lives Here organization. “This is a matter of public health, not free speech. People’s lives are at stake.”

According to Mitchell, in order for an item to be added to the agenda, two of the three commissioners must come to an agreement that it is agenda-worthy. Mitchell said while he would like to add the item to the agenda, the other two commissioners have yet to agree with him.

Commissioner Pam Holmquist highlighted freedom of speech and said Bukacek is entitled to her opinion and is “only one of nine board members.”

“When we agreed to put her on the board a few months ago, that decision was made to increase diversity,” Holmquist said. “We know not everyone agrees with Annie, but there are people who do.”

Both Mitchell and Holmquist said they are awaiting further advice from the Flathead County attorney as to whether or not they have the authority to remove Bukacek from the board. The request for more information was submitted by Mitchell.

Reporter Kianna Gardner may be reached at 758-4407 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com.