The Gallatin City-County Health Board is recommending Lori Christenson to replace outgoing Health Officer Matt Kelley.
Christenson, the director of environmental health services at the health department, was one of three finalists to fill the position set to be vacated by Kelley in June. Other finalists were Junie Delizo and Leslie Carroll.
“It became extremely obvious that Lori was the absolutely best pick,” Becky Franks, the chair of the board, said Thursday.
Franks was part of the hiring committee, which also included board Vice Chair Buck Taylor, County Commissioner Joe Skinner, City Commissioner I-Ho Pomeroy and two staff members from the health department, who unanimously recommended Christenson.
Christenson previously was the manager of the Gallatin Valley Food Bank. She has an undergraduate degree in resource conservation from the University of Montana and a master’s degree in public health from New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.
Franks said the work Christenson had previously done with the food bank, and her experience in policy development and environmental health made her the best candidate.
“Christenson’s only weakness is the question from the public whether we needed a fresh look,” Skinner said. “We decided that Lori is her own person, and a strong person, and she’ll bring her own ideas and look to the department.”
Kelley announced in March he would be leaving his position in June for a new job as CEO of Montana Public Health Institute. His last day is planned for June 7. Christenson is scheduled to start as an interim health officer on June 7, until a final decision is made on her appointment by the Gallatin County Commission and Bozeman City Commission.
“This position will be challenging, there is no doubt about it,” Christenson said. “I’m looking forward to working with our staff, the community and our partners and I’m really honored to have this opportunity.”
A law signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte in April revoked the power of the health board to appoint a health officer itself, instead requiring the board’s recommendation be approved by local elected officials.
The county commission will give first approval followed by the city, said county spokesperson Whitney Bermes.
When that will happened is still undecided, Bermes said.
The board meeting ended with goodbyes for Kelley — it was his last Board of Health meeting as the public health officer — and for Tracy Knoedler, the human services director, who is retiring in early June.
Kelley thanked the board for its support during the pandemic and thanked the department’s staff which he described as passionate, but fragile after a difficult year.
“They’re tired physically, mentally and emotionally. It’s hard for me to leave, but I think it might be healthy for me and for the department,” he said. “… I want to thank the staff as much as anybody, and the community that really stood by me and my family through some really tough times.”
The board also approved the health department’s proposed budget request for the 2022 fiscal year.
The budget proposal largely mirrored the previous fiscal year’s budget, with some asks to continue funding for changes and additions caused by the pandemic.
The new budget seeks to retain some workers brought on by the pandemic — including contact tracers and the call center — to maintain a stipend for a room with the HRDC for quarantining and isolation, to secure funding to retain certain wastewater sampling sites in the county to monitor the county’s viral load and to continue vaccine administration contracts.
“Overall we’re really proposing a pretty status quo budget in terms of overall impact,” Kelley said.
The budget does propose an increase of $84,000 generated through local taxes, which would mostly be used for wage increases for health department staff, Kelley said.
The county commission will have final approval of the budget.