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Commissioners prepare to approve new health officer for Gallatin County

Current Environmental Health Services director recommended by BOH to replace Matt Kelley
Gallatin City-County Health Department
Posted at 4:41 PM, Jun 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-03 20:20:47-04

BOZEMAN — Next week, both the Bozeman City Commission and the Gallatin County Commission will meet in two separate, regular meetings, both with the same goal listed on their agendas: approve the next Gallatin City-County Health Officer that will take Matt Kelley’s place.

It’s a job that, at least here in Gallatin County, has had the same person leading it for the last 11 years and within the last year and a half, it has become increasingly difficult.

When it comes to public health, in general, the decision that is at the hands of both county and city commissioners on Tuesday is significant.

“I think it’s really important that you have a public health officer, especially after what we’ve seen through the past year,” says Cyndy Andrus, mayor of the City of Bozeman.

It’s a year and a half now that feels like so much longer to many, including outgoing health officer Matt Kelley.

“I think I was at 10 years when COVID hit,” Kelley said in an interview back in February, 2021 to MTN’s Cody Boyer. “I might count that as a decade.”

As one route closes, the next route must open, according to both Bozeman City mayor Cyndy Andrus and Gallatin County commissioner Scott MacFarlane.

“I think that it is pretty important for the community. It’s pretty important for the city and county governments, as well, having somebody in that position that we trust and that has good professional strengths,” MacFarlane says.

“You want someone that also has a background in public health and someone who I believe is a good communicator because sometimes the things you have to communicate are complicated,” Andrus says.

The process has already narrowed the choice down by a dozen, from 13 applicants down to three and now one.

The Gallatin City-Board of Health recommends a familiar face to the position: the current Director of Environmental Health Services, Lori Christenson.

First, the potential new health officer must be vetted through two sets of approvals by the county and then the city.

“They are going to have to continue to deal with COVID, for sure,” Andrus says. “We aren’t finished with it yet. We can certainly see the light at the end of the tunnel but I think there are still some things that will need to be addressed there.”

“We are taking this very seriously,” MacFarlane says. “Most people up until last year, most people in our community, we didn’t expect that they even knew who the health officer was and what the board of health did. The pandemic has kind of illustrated to everyone that there are times,” / “where these positions become much more important to the community.”

But with the passage of House Bill 257, which revises the law to stop health department authority from impeding a private business’ ability to conduct business, both agree that Matt Kelley’s replacement will inherit a potentially sensitive situation.

“We hope that it isn’t as heavy as a job for the next health officer as it had been for Matt Kelley,” MacFarlane says. “We can all hope that the next health officer has a much easier couple of years ahead of them.”

“We have had a system in place for many, many years that has worked really well and when I think about the duties of the health officer and what that person has done, we have had basically no issues,” Andrus says. “We have a really awesome health officer and we’ve had a really great board of health so a decision made by the legislature to change a process based on [the pandemic], I think it was a bit short-sighted and maybe not well-thought through. This idea now that there’s one more step to go through with something that I believe the new health officer will have to think about and the city and the county will continue to work together to make the best decisions for the county.”

This approval is ticket number one on Gallatin County Commission agenda for Tuesday at 9 a.m., which again is open to the public via Zoom and then that same night at 6 p.m. is when the City Commission meets to make its own approval.

You can read more about Lori Christenson below:

Lori Christenson, MPH, RS is currently the Director of Environmental Health Services at Gallatin City-County Health Department in Bozeman Montana. Lori has over 12 years’ experience in Public Health, 7 of those at GCCHD, and has extensive experience in program and prevention management, community leadership and engagement, and emergency preparedness. Prior to joining the Health Department, she worked to address social determinants of health as manager of the Gallatin Valley Food Bank, helping to expand and strengthen programs to address hunger among seniors, children, and others in need. Lori has successfully led quality improvement projects and performance management activities that have resulted in significant process and programmatic improvements. She has extensive experience in community enhancement through the development and facilitation of community coalitions. Lori has managed grants, designed and implemented outreach and mass media campaigns for cancer and tobacco prevention. Lori has taken on leadership roles in the COVID19 pandemic response, using her skills to serve as the Public Information Officer at the start of the pandemic, managed reopening efforts during the pandemic and is currently serving as Planning Section Chief for the Gallatin County COVID19 response. Academically she earned her master’s degree in public health through New Mexico State University in Las Cruces and a BS in Resource Conservation through University of Montana, and is also a State of Montana registered sanitarian.