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After Statesman report on ‘toxic’ workplace, CDH board hires consultants to investigate

The Central District Health board has hired consultants to review the work culture at the public health district headquartered in Boise, following an Idaho Statesman investigation into employees’ allegations of retaliation earlier this month.

The board approved spending up to $20,000 for a contract with consulting group Calyx-Weaver and Associates to review human resources policies and report findings or recommendations. Central District Health oversees public health policies for Ada, Elmore, Boise and Valley counties.

The Statesman article reported that 17 former and current employees alleged a culture of retaliation that they said jeopardized public health services. Some said they faced backlash after coming forward with concerns about discrimination against Hispanic employees, while others said they faced repercussions when they pushed back on actions that ignored public health best practices.

At least three were fired and barred from receiving unemployment benefits, records obtained by the Statesman showed. All three appealed for unemployment benefits to the state, which ruled in their favor.

The board scheduled a meeting Tuesday, ahead of its regularly scheduled December meeting, for an executive session to hear complaints or “consider the evaluation, dismissal or disciplining of” staff members, and to communicate with legal counsel. CDH Director Russ Duke on Tuesday cited the Statesman article, and allegations of a “toxic” work environment, and said an attorney advised him to seek independent consultants for an unbiased review of the personnel matters.

Valley County Commissioner Elt Hasbrouck, who chairs the CDH board, said at the meeting that he believes many HR problems are policy-driven and wants to review those policies “so we don’t end up in this situation again.” Hasbrouck said the findings would be made public.

“I want to do what’s right for all of our employees, even those who are disgruntled,” Hasbrouck said. He added that most people simply want to feel heard.

Hasbrouck on Tuesday told board members that he wants to move forward with the contract as soon as possible.

Gina Pannell, a former division administrator, resigned from CDH last year and filed a complaint of gender-based discrimination and harassment against Gary Foote, CDH’s human resources manager, with the Idaho Human Rights Commission. Pannell told the Statesman on Tuesday that hiring an independent entity “to examine the systemic issues is a responsible first step,” and she hopes that former employees are included in the investigation.

“I appreciate the board taking the allegations of discrimination, harassment and retaliation seriously,” Pannell said in a statement. “The board’s actions validate many people who have been hurt and demonstrates a commitment to repairing the damage that has been done.”

The same morning the Statesman’s story was published, Duke sent an email to staffers and scheduled a noon meeting to discuss the article, and wrote he was unable to discuss “a lot more” to the story because they were personnel matters. The email was obtained by the Statesman through a former employee.

“I want you to know that the leadership team is truly committed to having a positive culture and we care deeply about all of you,” Duke wrote. “Our board has always been invested in ensuring we provide a great work environment as attested by the annual culture survey they have implemented for over a decade. … We remain committed to our agency and our values, and it is my hope that each CDH employee feels heard and welcome here.”

CDH spokesperson Maria Ortega said in written responses to the Statesman that the details of the contract will be determined over the next few days, and that the consultants will provide an update at the board’s Feb. 17 meeting.

The health district declined a request from the Statesman on Tuesday to schedule an interview.