The San Benito County Board of Supervisors approved a contract extension for interim Public Health Officer Dr. David Ghilarducci at its June 16 meeting in a 4-1 vote. Supervisor Peter Hernandez was the lone “no” vote, as he raised concerns about the authority given to Ghilarducci in the contract.
Ghilarducci, also the county’s emergency medical services director, was hired one day after the resignation of Martin Fenstersheib on April 28. His new contract expires on Dec. 31 and salary is not to exceed $72,000.
According to the meeting agenda packet, the previous contract under which Ghilarducci was operating expires on June 30 for an amount not to exceed $16,000. It was intended for him to act as the public health officer as a replacement when the previous officer was sick, on vacation or in cases of other absences.
To address his concerns regarding the public health officer’s authority, Hernandez proposed two amendments to the contract—that the Board of Supervisors have authority to amend or nullify the health officer’s actions and to require him to report to the county more frequently. Though the reporting amendment was initially accepted by Supervisor Mark Medina, support was withdrawn prior to the vote.
“I don’t agree with the current relationship with the doctor,” Hernadez said before proposing his amendments. He said three things need to be taken into account regarding the public health officer’s decisions: protecting public health, the economy and constitutional rights.
“I firmly believe our decisions need to include those three things on how he administered that,” Hernandez said. “I’ve always felt we need to have an accountability component as supervisors where we are able to talk to him and say ‘look, we don’t agree with you doing it just that way,’ or at least weigh in.”
Hernandez clarified that he wanted the county to have a say in the public health officer’s actions in order to balance impacts to the community. He also said that he wanted the public health officer to provide supervisors with any study he referenced to base his decisions or opinions on so the public can also review the data.
“We had evidence today where our doctor basically said, ‘Hey there’s all this evidence going on with why we need to go with the local mask order’ and it was never even added to the agenda,” Hernandez said. “That’s information we should be able to disseminate ahead of time, so we know where his head is, and the public has that right also.”
Affirming that Hernadez had raised valid points, Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz asked County Counsel Barbara Thompson if there was a way San Benito County could address those concerns. Thompson said the board has the ability to request information from the public health officer as they see fit, including information that is expected to be discussed at public meetings. She also said the board can terminate a public officer because of job performance.
During the discussion, County Administrative Officer Ray Espinosa informed supervisors that the county has conducted one interview for the public health officer position and that there are four other interviews set up. He said the county has been in the process of hiring a permanent public health officer for over a year.
The county’s last full-time public health officer was Gail Newel, hired in February 2017 with an annual wage of $153,530. She left the county in July 2019. Fenstersheib was acting as interim public health officer prior to Newel’s appointment, and after her resignation he took on the position again, receiving a $104,000 annual salary.
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