GREEN VALLEY  — On Wednesday, Mercer County Board of Health member Greg Puckett was present to face his three fellow board members who had voted to remove him from the board two months earlier.

MCBOH Chair Randy Stevens, who recused himself from voting both on Puckett and on the June motion to remove language from the Mercer County Clean Air regulation which would have governed free-standing bars, bingo halls and fraternal organizations, announced that he would not be voting on either motion and stated that he had not received any written information from the County Commission regarding a request sent in June to remove Puckett from the Board of Health. 

Stevens said he had spoken with Commission President Gene Buckner and was advised informally that the Commission’s job was to appoint people, rather than remove them, and if the BOH wished to remove someone, that issue should be dealt with internally, according to his understanding. 

Before the discussion went any further Wednesday, Mercer County Prosecuting Attorney George Sitler, who also serves as the Board of Health’s legal counsel read the BOH’s bylaws’ reasons for removal of a member, which state the board may remove a member for “official misconduct, incompetence, neglect of duty, gross immorality, or the revocation of any state professional license or certification. I don’t know if that’s exhaustive, but that’s what the bylaws say.”

Stevens reminded the board members that the letter in June was submitted because of a question of conflict of interest, “which I didn’t hear in that list.”

“It’s not in the list,” Sitler said. 

With no further discussion at that point, Board Vice Chair Randy Maxwell, who had made the motion to remove Puckett in June, said, “I want to make a motion. Dismiss him.”

As Stevens attempted to clarify that Maxwell was seeking Puckett’s removal due to a conflict of interest, Maxwell added that he wanted Puckett gone due to the conflict of interest and “misrepresentation.”

Vinciguerra efficiently seconded Maxwell’s motion, as the speakers who had gathered in Puckett’s support whispered in frustration amongst themselves. One asked if they would have a chance to speak. Stevens answered, “This is a board problem.”

One of those Princeton residents quietly and almost to herself, said, “It’s a county problem.”

With a motion and a second on the floor, Puckett asked Stevens if the motion could be opened for discussion, and Stevens agreed. Puckett then asked Maxwell under what grounds he should be forced off the board.

Maxwell argued that Puckett formerly indicated he represented both the County Commission’s interest, without letting his position as the Executive Director of Community Connections, Mercer County’s Family Resource Network, cloud his judgment. Community Connections previously operated partially on grant funding to deter tobacco use and prevent young people from beginning to use tobacco products. 

Puckett responded that he never said he represented the County Commission or other Commissioners’ views when he advocated the passage of a comprehensive clean air ordinance; Maxwell disagreed. 

There was also back-and-forth verbal sparring over funding that Maxwell said he wanted to “come here,” but how much the funding was, where it originated from or where it should go was never fully addressed Wednesday.

Maxwell also contended that the MCBOH had been “misled” about how the ordinance was coming up in court.

“Then we get an attorney [Bill Huffman] come in here and tell us you cannot override the State Supreme Court, so for a year we have been misled and looked less than competent,” he said.

Huffman told the panel that he would recommend against enacting a comprehensive smoking ban everywhere except limited video lottery establishments, which in his opinion, would be grounds for legal action. 

After listening to Maxwell’s reasoning, Puckett retorted that the county was going to do an ordinance, but that Sitler recommended they wait until a definite ruling was issued in a case before the Supreme Court on the Brooke County ordinance. That action was not taken, he said, until “way into” the spring. And, since the board waited until he was out of town in Utah to take any action, he didn’t get a chance to take any action with the board when he was present.

He then called on the board to follow the State code governing Boards of Health to protect the public health to clean air, water, food, and facilities and administer public health laws.

“This board is not doing that in any capacity as long as we do not pass an ordinance that protects the public health in that capacity,” he said.

Puckett also said he had reached out to the state Board of Ethics regarding the possibility of a conflict of interest and that they did not see any grounds for dismissal. He added that if said dismissal proceeded, he would pursue legal action against the collective MCBOH and its individual members.

Puckett said he had reached out to the Board of Ethics for an opinion on whether his presence on the BOH as the executive director of Community Connections presented a conflict of interest. He said the panel reported there was no conflict. He then passed out a copy of the opinion to each member of the BOH. He said in the argument that he supports programs that involve cessation of negative activities that hurt the health of local citizens, at least three other board members had conflicts of interest, including Maxwell (a chiropractor), Wyatt (a nurse), and Stevens (a dentist).

“You all tell people, if you want to be better, you’re going to quit smoking, you’re going to eat healthily. Those are jobs of our duties here, and if we do anything different, other than the maximum capabilities under the code, then we are in contempt of the state of West Virginia!” he said, drawing applause and solemn comments of “amen” from supporters in the audience.

Meanwhile, Wyatt had a question. 

“Where is the free will of the person? Because I have really thought and prayed on that very gray subject that you brought up, Greg,” he said, adding that as a paramedic he saved lives on a regular basis. 

He went on to question whether he would be infringing on Americans’ constitutional rights if he acted with a body that revoked smoking rights, if they made a choice to continue a habit anywhere they choose to do so.

“I’ve seen so many people die from it, but my big worry is am I, personally taking away somebody’s freedom?” Wyatt said. 

Dr. Kathy Wides advised everyone that public health is different because its goal is to do the best good for the most amount of people possible. It is not geared toward the individual. 

“It’s the greatest good for the most amount of people,” she said.

After further discussion, a vote was called by Stevens on Puckett’s dismissal. Maxwell made the motion to dismiss Puckett with a second by Mike Vinciguerra. Sean Wyatt also voted to dismiss, while Puckett voted no.

After the vote, Dr. Kathy Wides, the county’s health officer, immediately tendered her resignation, saying for 20 years she had been fighting to get a clean-air regulation and that the board’s action did not show any such vision. She said she would stay on in an advisory capacity until a new health officer was chosen.

Six people in the audience had signed up to speak at the meeting.

Kelly Siner said, as both a sufferer from lupus and advocate for lupus victims, she was “disappointed” by the board’s action and that Maxwell, Vinciguerra, and Wyatt should resign or be removed.

“I have to question what we’re doing here. if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. I have to question the ethics of Mr. Stevens, Maxwell, Vinciguerra, and Wyatt. You’re letting go the only two people who care for the public on this board,” she said.

Bill Skeat, in terse remarks, said the actions of the board were “disgusting” and “reprehensible.”

Puckett’s mother, Sandra, said there was much she could say about her son, that was not why she was present to address the board. She did move to the other side of the room to speak to the three members of the panel who voted to oust Greg Puckett, since they had turned their backs on all of the speakers who signed up to address the Board of Health. Throughout the presentation, the only members of the group who looked at the speakers face to face were Greg Puckett and Stevens. Wyatt did, at times, face the speakers.

“The reason I am here is something that hits us all and we all think about in this area. I am calling on Mercer County to have some backbone and stand up against smoking,” she said.

Sandra Puckett urged the board to consider the economic impact the absence of a comprehensive clean air regulation has when large parties need a place to meet without the stench of stale cigarette smoke, and there are none. As an example, she cited her teachers’ sorority of Alpha Delta Kappa, which routinely seeks out places for state and regional meetings. Currently, they are forced to meet in churches and state parks, because they cannot meet in a place saturated with second-hand smoke. That, she reminded them, makes a negative economic impact, sending potential development dollars out of the area.

None of the Board members responded in any way to the speakers. The vote had been taken to remove Greg Puckett from their panel before any of the speakers addressed them. 

— Contact Jeff Harvey at delimartman@yahoo.com.