WARRENSBURG — The Johnson County Republican Women’s Club hosted a candidate forum Monday afternoon, March 1, at RISE Cafe for the candidates seeking election to the Johnson County Community Health Services Board of Trustees.
There are seven candidates vying for three positions, each a four-year term, on the JCCHS board in the April 6 Municipal Election.
Each candidate was given three minutes to speak to attendees and was then given the opportunity to answer questions posed by attendees.
Noah Harness is an EMT who has worked in ambulances and in hospital settings.
Harness discussed the importance of having a county health board, citing the organization’s role in providing home health, vaccinations and medical records.
Harness went on to say the board should take the input of business owners and citizens into account when making decisions.
When prompted by an attendee, Harness said he also organized the Johnson County Trump Cruise across the county in November 2020.
When an attendee asked if Harness was a lifelong Johnson County resident, he said he was.
Megan Jaeger introduced herself as a Christian, a homeschooling mother of two, a wife to a military member, the owner of a farm north of Warrensburg and was previously a physical education teacher. She is also a member of Johnson County Freedom Keepers, which hosted an anti-mask protest in front of JCCHS last year.
Jaeger said she decided to run for the position after she made public comments during JCCHS board meetings over the last year. She said her questions were dismissed and board members told her that she was misinformed about mask safety. Jaeger said she never received responses to emails made to JCCHS regarding COVID-19.
Jaeger said she also decided to run because parents and educators she spoke to felt their voices were not being heard by the board.
Jaeger said she believes the role of the health department is to inform citizens and allow citizens to make their own decisions. She claimed that implementing a mask mandate is “overreach” and stated she would not support actions violating human rights or body autonomy.
Jaeger said she believes the JCCHS board lacked transparency. When prompted by an attendee, she said if elected, she would provide her email and phone number to the public.
Justin Johnston introduced himself as a father of four and a Johnson County resident since 1997. He said he is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force Reserve Command where he also worked under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), he previously worked for the Highway Patrol and is an owner of four businesses including Twister Sports and Pita Pit.
Johnston said decisions made by the JCCHS board last year impacted his businesses and resulted in Twister Sports closing for five weeks and the need to lay off the staff of Twister Sports and Pita Pit.
If elected, he said he would represent the community.
When asked why he was running for the position, he said the board should have a representative for small businesses.
Incumbent Donna Stewart introduced herself as a lifelong Johnson County resident, growing up in Centerview and graduating from Central Missouri State University (now the University of Central Missouri). She said her husband is a veteran and they have three children.
Stewart previously worked a number of years in the federal government’s Social Security Administration and later worked part-time in the county health office.
Stewart said she believes the county has good, caring people. She said she wants the community to do well and that healthy people do well, resulting in businesses doing well.
Stewart said she began her position on the JCCHS board following an early resignation from a previous board member. She said she was reelected to the board after an uncontested election when that term expired.
She said 2021’s election is the first instance in which a number of other community members have shown interest in the position, which she attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Stewart said the responsibilities of the board reach beyond COVID-19 issues.
An attendee asked Stewart what the line of communication and decision-making process with the Johnson County Commission entails. Stewart responded by saying that the board’s decision-making power is determined by the state and that the board and commission have been in contact regarding a number of different issues in the past.
Stewart also said that as a five-person board, no individual member can make any decision and three of the five board members must approve each decision.
When prompted on the topic, Western Commissioner Charlie Kavanaugh said he had spoken to Stewart a few times regarding the county’s mask mandate and JCCHS Administrator Mary Thaut a number of times, but also said he could not get in contact with individual members when the mandate was first issued by JCCHS. Lastly, Kavanaugh said the Commission has no authority over the JCCHS board.
Corrine (Corky) Burgin
Incumbent and Chair of the JCCHS board Corrine (Corky) Burgin introduced herself as a Johnson County resident since 2011, a mother of two sons and a graduate of Central Missouri State University. She previously worked as an environmental safety and health professional.
Burgin began serving on the board shortly after moving to the community. She said she has enjoyed serving on the board ever since.
Burgin said she wanted to emphasize Stewart’s point that JCCHS responsibilities involve more than mask mandates. She said the work at JCCHS involves public health, contact tracing for COVID-19, vaccinations, taking care of the senior population and approving financial decisions.
Burgin said she is delighted to see more community members take interest in the role, but said she is less delighted that the main focus has been limited to COVID-19 issues.
Burgin said she has had a limited amount of people contact her about issues in the past year, but answered the calls relayed to her by Thaut and citizens who messaged her on Facebook.
When asked by an attendee if the JCCHS board has a group board email, Burgin said the board has discussed setting one up, but decided not to do so because of obstacles such as making sure it is monitored and how to coordinate responses. Burgin said the board listens to public comments during their monthly meetings and urgent issues brought to Thaut’s attention are able to be discussed during special board meetings.
When pressed on the issue further, Burgin provided her phone number to the attendees. She said she would be willing to speak with anyone who gives her common courtesy.
Burgin went on to say her family has been extremely cautious to ensure COVID-19 wouldn’t infect her family members as several of them have medical conditions that make them high-risk individuals. She said she supports the mask mandate because she believes the community should protect vulnerable individuals.
An attendee said masks do not work because of the size of the microorganisms of the virus. Burgin responded by stating microorganisms do not survive in the air and are not transmitted that way. She said the virus is spread by droplets and that masks are effective in containing aerosols.
When asked about the source of her information by an attendee, Burgin said it was a report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which cited American Medical Association as a source.
Burgin said she acknowledged that CDC’s guidance was uneven at the beginning of the pandemic, but has improved as more information regarding COVID-19 became available.
Following Burgin’s time speaking, Eastern Commissioner John Marr addressed the crowd, imploring attendees to ask the same caliber of questions to incumbents as they did to the newcomers and to not make a candidate forum a chance to “beat up on” existing board members.
Incumbent Rick Edwards introduced himself as a Holden resident and father of four children. He spent 33 years in the public education system as a teacher, coach and superintendent.
Edwards said his initial reason for joining the board in 2013 was to help improve the health services provided to county residents. He said he still has a strong desire to improve county health protocols.
He said during his time on the board, he has worked with his fellow board members to try and come up with the best solutions and programs for the county. Edwards said he feels good about the decisions he and the board made in uncharted territories.
Edwards said a board member needs to be dedicated, strong in conviction and willing to do what is best for the county.
He said as a board member, he has relied on best practices, county medical personnel, and CDC guidelines to make decisions. Edwards also said all of the county school districts supported the board’s decision to implement a mask mandate.
Edwards said that as a board, they felt they had made the right decision for the county.
When asked if the JCCHS board members represent county districts, Edwards clarified that is not the case and that the whole county votes to elect each member.
James Williams introduced himself as a registered nurse and nurse practitioner, which he has done for more than 40 years in addition to being employed by the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. He said his last full-time job was as a director of clinical research and clinical services for the Alaska Native health care system.
During his time at the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, he specialized in vaccine research. During that time, he helped conduct the original clinical trials for Hepatitis A in Alaska in 1990.
Williams said while COVID-19 and Hepatitis A are two very different viruses, the public and community issues are identical.
He said if he is elected, he will make it known what his phone number and email are. Williams said he understands the need for transparency and communicating facts and ideas.
Williams referenced his time in Alaska as an example: he would speak with village members during town halls to discuss issues that were important to them and use his knowledge and experience to answer them as best as he could.
He went on to say a cornerstone of public health is good communication, which leads to good decisions being made.
Williams said the goal of the health board is to make a healthier community by ensuring people can live their lives the way they choose, have a safe place to raise children, have clean water and have good schools. He said public health has a part in all aspects of the community.
When asked by an attendee if he considers economic health as a part of community health, Edwards said having a sustainable wage to provide necessities like food and the ability to pay bills plays a part in making a healthy community.
When making a decision, Williams said it is unlikely that everyone will get what they want and the goal should be to make decisions that everyone can live with.
He said everyone has made sacrifices during the COVID-19 pandemic and that there needs to be understanding about the equity of these sacrifices among communities and families.
Williams added that there is a need to be prepared in the case of a rare incident such as a pandemic and understand the consequences of it.
Williams said he came out of retirement last year to assist the health department in making phone calls on behalf of the organization for multiple months. He said “it drains your soul” to speak with individuals who are desperately ill and have no one to transport them to the hospital or get groceries.
He went on to say there are good people at JCCHS who have been doing the best they can during the pandemic while working with limited resources and personnel.
When prompted by an attendee, Williams said public health issues should never be politicized and shouldn’t be controversial.