NEW ALBANY — On the day he implemented new local restrictions on bars and restaurants in response to rising COVID-19 positivity rates, the certification of Dr. Tom Harris for another term as Floyd County’s health officer was tabled.
The measure was on the Floyd County Commissioners’ agenda Tuesday night. After the item was announced for consideration, the sponsor, Commissioner Tim Kamer, announced he wanted to table the certification.
Kamer didn’t comment at that time about the reason for holding off on a vote for Harris, who has been the health officer since 2006. The two other commissioners also didn’t comment on the issue Tuesday.
At the end of the meeting, during the public speaking portion of the night, Harris provided the commissioners with an update on the new restrictions and the reasoning behind the order.
He then asked for clarification as to why he wasn’t being re-certified.
The Floyd County Health Department’s board of directors voted to appoint him for another term during a recent meeting, Harris said. The board votes to appoint the health officer, and the commissioners are charged with certifying their choice. The health officer receives a stipend through the county for services that include leading the health department. It was unclear Wednesday what would occur if the commissioners failed to certify the board’s appointment.
“There are a lot of decisions coming up” over the next couple of months regarding the administration of a COVID-19 vaccine, the path schools will take next semester and the overall course of continued testing, Harris told the commissioners Tuesday.
“I need to, I think I have a right to, some input as to why the commissioners are tabling the certification,” Harris said. “It helps me plan for the future. It helps our organization plan for the future.”
“By tabling it, it puts me in an awkward position for trying to make plans that someone else may have to implement.”
Kamer addressed Harris after his comments, and said the reason for the delay is so that he can do his “due diligence” and talk to other people about the certification. Kamer said that’s his normal path of action for any appointment.
“I’m not punting this down the road indefinitely. I just want a little more time to gather enough facts,” Kamer said. “I just got it in front of me the last two days and haven’t had enough time to go through it.”
Shawn Carruthers, president of the commissioners, said in a phone interview Wednesday that he would also like to garner more information before deciding on a three-year commitment. The commissioners will meet with the health board to discuss its selection of Harris and whether or not any other candidates were considered, he continued.
“We’re looking beyond just now and where we want to be in the future and if this is the right fit moving forward,” Carruthers said. “We just want to make sure the board is thinking the same thing the commissioners are here.”
As to whether other candidates applied, Carruthers said he’d heard there was some interest from other individuals but that he would seek to clarify that with the board during their meeting.
Commissioner John Schellenberger also said he was interesting in receiving more information about the process and that he wouldn’t comment further until after the executive session is held.
Carruthers and Schellenberger both declined to comment when asked to evaluate how Harris and the Floyd County Health Department have handled the pandemic.
Harris also declined to comment further on the certification when reached by phone Wednesday. He said the decision lies with the board of health and the commissioners, and added he’s focused on continuing the fight to stop the spread of COVID-19.
On Tuesday, Harris issued an order requiring restaurants to reduce capacity to 75% and bars to close by 10 p.m. Harris previously extended Floyd County’s mask mandate through the end of the year.
Floyd County, like most Indiana counties, is designated as “orange” based on a color-coded state map that correlates with positivity rates. It’s the third-highest alert level of the four designations.