Shari Ortner

Shari Ortner, chief nursing officer for the Rock Island County Health Department, listens to board members during the July 11 health board meeting. 

ROCK ISLAND — Employees working in the Rock Island County Health Department Infectious Diseases department, 2112 25th Ave., will no longer directly report to Chief Nursing Officer Shari Ortner.

Following a 75-minute closed session on Thursday with Assistant State's Attorney Patricia Castro present, members of the Rock Island County Board of Health approved creating a new nursing supervisor position, adding a buffer between Ortner and the employees she has been supervising. 

Board members Kaye Whitley, Kate Varlas-Teel and Dr. Mark Bollaert opposed the new position. Dr. Jeffrey Maurus abstained, and Dr. Naurin Ahmad was absent. 

"It's a management-level (position) between the direct staff and the chief nurse (Ortner)," Health Department Administrator Nita Ludwig said. "We will be posting for the position."

"I don't know enough about what that position is going to be doing," Whitley said after the meeting. "I understand it is the same title as another one we have here, but I haven't seen a job description to know what service that role will be performing."

Board member Doug Vroman said the position was created on the advice of health department administration. 

"We're moving (Ortner) to another position and adding this position as a level between her and the nurses who work in infectious diseases," Vroman said. 

The health department has been at the center of controversy for months, much of it involving Ortner. 

Joleen Diehl, a registered nurse with the infectious diseases department, filed a complaint April 11 with the Illinois Department of Human Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging discrimination and retaliation by Ortner for her participation in a grievance filed Oct. 23 by several health department employees against Ortner.

On April 12, Cynthia Lodge, another employee in the infectious diseases department, filed a lawsuit against Rock Island County and Ludwig, claiming she was terminated for her role in the same grievance, alleging Ludwig violated the Illinois Whistleblower Act.

AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees), the union representing county employees, filed a separate grievance April 22 with the Illinois Labor Relations Board on behalf of five employees and three union stewards, listing the same complaints against Ortner. 

Ortner was hired by the health department in December 2017. Ortner was present at Thursday's meeting, but did not speak or offer comment. 

Vroman said the issues with Ortner "stimulated the discussion" for creating the new supervisor position, but added, "there are benefits to this reorganization. It's definitely a difficult time for our staff and our employees. As you're aware, we just lost our medical director.

"It's been a real challenge with a lot of the negative publicity we've received from the newspapers," Vroman said. "It's been a challenge for the board and it's definitely impacted our staff and our employees. We provide a lot of valuable services to the community. We have dedicated employees. This has really been a challenge for everybody.

"We are trying to do what we can to address those issues," Vroman said. "Hopefully, several months from now we'll be talking about the positive stories and where this department is going."

Dr. Julie Voelker, medical director for the health department, announced her resignation June 28, two days after the Dispatch-Argus reported that lab results testing positive for possible tuberculosis infection in six people went unreported at the health department for nearly three months. Voelker's last day as medical director is Friday.

Ludwig announced during the meeting that Dr. Donald Ford will serve as temporary medical director until a permanent replacement can be hired. 

"We do have a medical director in place and we do have standing orders," Ludwig said. "We will not be able to operate an STD clinic; people can go to the Henry County clinic."

After the meeting, Janet Hill, chief operating officer for the health department, said the department used to employ more managers, and creation of the new nursing supervisor position made sense. 

"Adding another manager is not necessarily a bad thing here," Hill said. "This is a return to a closer number of the managers that we had several years ago."