Health board names interim chief as Sands resigns post

The Southern Nevada Health District board accepted the resignation of the district’s chief health officer Thursday and appointed a temporary replacement.

Dr. Lawrence Sands, 57, announced his departure in a news release a week ago.

Although two Clark County commissioners welcomed the news, Sands told the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Thursday that no one asked him to step down.

“That was my decision,” he said. “At this time in my career, my experience and skills afford me many opportunities I wish to consider.”

The board appointed Dr. John Middaugh, director of the district’s division of community health, interim chief.

Sands, who has overseen the health district since March 2007, said he plans to stay in the community.

During his five-year tenure, district officials managed a hepatitis C outbreak that resulted in one of the largest public health warnings in the nation. They also dealt with a shortage of H1N1 flu vaccine and with several cases of Legionnaires’ disease at a Strip hotel.

County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who also serves on the health district board, has said district employees began raising concerns about Sands’ management several months ago. She did not attend Thursday’s meeting.

Shelli Clark, executive assistant to the chief health officer, told the board she did not support its decision. She also defended Sands against previous allegations that he had yelled at and bullied employees.

Clark said she has worked alongside Sands for more than seven years and only heard him raise his voice once. She said he only did so in that instance to restore decorum at a meeting, and he later apologized.

After the board meeting, Clark explained why she objected to Middaugh’s appointment as interim chief.

“I just don’t feel that he’s given Dr. Sands 100 percent support, and I just don’t feel that he’s completely trustworthy at this point,” she told the Review-Journal.

Clark said she understood her comments could get her into trouble but added, “I also said that I will continue to do my job 150 percent.”

“My service is to the district and the board and the public,” she said.

County Commissioner Steve Sisolak joined Giunchigliani last week in applauding Sands’ decision to resign. Both commissioners said Sands had made decisions that had soured relations with the health district.

Sands’ move in April to vacate the district’s main building near downtown Las Vegas because of structural concerns suspended some services and left taxpayers on the hook for the salaries of district employees put on administrative leave.

Giunchigliani said Sands had no pressing reason to close the building. She thought it was a political move to force the commission to finance a new space rather than a move made out of concern for employee and public safety.

She also pointed to questions about Sands’ decision to hand out three years of pay raises while the economy faltered and about two pending lawsuits – one over funding for a new building and another over property ownership – with the county.

Sisolak said Sands’ departure will help “build some bridges instead of some fences.”

Giunchigliani said Sands was not pressured to resign, but she guessed that a scheduled public performance evaluation in the coming weeks might have played a role in his decision.

At Thursday’s meeting, Las Vegas City Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian, who also sits on the health district board, accused other board members of maneuvering behind the scenes to remove Sands before he could undergo an objective, public evaluation.

“It did not look right,” she said. “It did not smell right.”

County Commissioner Lawrence Weekly, sitting in as Giunchigliani’s alternate, said he respected Tarkanian’s comments. He then made a motion to accept Sands’ resignation, citing a need “to move on and move this bus forward.”

The board voted to continue paying Sands’ salary and benefits through Dec. 21. Sands said he would make himself available as a consultant during the transition.

Middaugh was appointed interim chief through August 2013 or until a permanent chief is selected. He will receive the same annual salary Sands received while serving as chief: $241,000.

Sands said Middaugh is the only person on the health district staff who meets the statutory requirements for the position of chief health officer.

Middaugh told board members the district faces challenges that “are enormous and really daunting” and said he would need their “full support.”

“I cannot fix the problems of the district alone,” he said.

Weekly told Middaugh the board is depending on him to lead by example.

“We need some real leadership here,” he said.

North Las Vegas City Councilwoman Anita Wood, also a board member, told Middaugh, “With that salary, we have high expectations for you, too.”

Another board member, Boulder City Councilman Rod Woodbury, commended Sands for his hard work, professionalism and personal outreach efforts.

“You were always a man of integrity,” he said. “I do appreciate your dedication to public health, as well.”

Sands said the health district entered into a three-year lease Thursday for a new building at 330 Valley View Blvd., across from Springs Preserve.

Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at cgeer@reviewjournal.com or 702-384-8710.

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