'Very definition of cronyism,' Gitlin calls arrangement

A proposal to create a volunteer deputy public health officer position prompted Del Norte's newest supervisor Tuesday to question the ability of the current public health officer to do his job from his home in Santa Barbara.

Supervisor Roger Gitlin, who pulled the item off the consent agenda, unsuccessfully attempted to introduce a motion to require that the public health officer live in Del Norte County at least 180 days of the year. He also questioned Health and Human Services Director Gary Blatnick on the salary that Public Health Officer Dr. Thomas Martinelli earns and the hours he works.

Gitlin said that four physicians from Del Norte and Curry counties are interested in the public health officer position. He cast the dissenting vote when the Board approved the deputy position 4-1.

"The Board's passing of a volunteer deputy public health officer at the request of Director Blatnick is analogous to placing a Band-Aid on an open wound," Gitlin said in a written statement Wednesday. "The placing of this item on the consent agenda speaks to the issue that this item would not have reached the level of public scrutiny demanded. (Yesterday's) decision is the very definition of cronyism."

Martinelli, who came to Del Norte County in 1982 and founded Crescent City Internal Medicine, has been the county's public health officer since 2005. He said he moved to Santa Barbara in October 2011, but still has a home in Del Norte and spends about a week each month there working with public health nurses and environmental health officers.

Martinelli said he also works in various clinics at Pelican Bay State Prison and acts as a consultant between the prison and Sutter Coast Hospital.

The public health officer serves as the county's medical and public health authority to enforce local health orders, ordinances and statutes. The officer assesses the health status of the community, provides medical direction to the Public Health Department and helps plan local environmental and public health service and education programs.

Martinelli said the Department of Health and Human Services and the Board of Supervisors approved him to continue on as the public health officer in 2011 despite the move to Santa Barbara because of the nature of the position.

During his tenure as public health officer, Martinelli said he has worked through three major outbreaks. The first was an outbreak of an intestinal illness due to raw milk that affected 14 people in 2007. Del Norte County also experienced outbreaks of H1N1, or swine flu, four years ago and pertussis, or whooping cough, three years ago, Martinelli said. In all three cases, Del Norte's Public Health Department received praise from the state, he said.

"We were commended by the state (on) getting information out to clinics and starting vaccinations," Martinelli said, referring to the pertussis outbreak, which affected infants. "They commended us on how we reduced the pertussis outbreaks so quickly."

Martinelli added that he has also been working with the Wild Rivers Community Foundation and the Rural Health Program at the University of California, Davis, to create a physician loan repayment or scholarship program that will encourage new doctors to relocate to Del Norte.

"That's what I can do where I am in Santa Barbara," he said.

Representatives from UC Davis will visit Del Norte in June to meet with the Board of Supervisors and the community about its physician loan repayment and scholarship program.

The deputy public health officer will assume the public health officer's duties in his absence, Blatnick said. Dr. Matthew Blundell, a former colleague of Martinelli who works at Crescent City Internal Medicine, has volunteered to fill the deputy position. Creating a deputy public health officer position is simply formalizing a system that has already been in place, Blatnick said.

"The physicians in the community have been willing to fill in for the public health officer, and I've talked to a number of local physicians who have told us 'in any sort of emergency situation, anything you may need, give us a call,'" Blatnick said. "We haven't had to take them up on it yet, but we wanted to still see if we can formalize (the position) a little bit more."

Blatnick said he and County Administrative Officer Jay Sarina are working with a former public health officer, Dr. Warren Rehwaldt, and other physicians on coming up with a local option for the public health officer position if that is what the Board of Supervisors decide on.

"We will decide, hopefully, in the near future what exactly we're going to be doing," Blatnick said. "Whether we will retain Dr. Martinelli or whether we will hire one of the local physicians who's interested."

During the board's discussion Tuesday, Supervisor Gerry Hemmingsen said he had questioned Martinelli's ability to do his job from Santa Barbara, but was satisfied with the response he received.

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com.