Dr. James Mu, Shasta County’s new health officer, has been on the job for four weeks.
It might have taken much longer to learn how the less-qualified Mu landed that position, if not for people who shared with A News Cafe pertinent new information.
There were several steps that guided Dr. Mu down the path of his eventual appointment.
Arguably the most crucial step that led to Dr. Mu’s appointment was when District 4 Supervisor Patrick Jones, chair of Shasta County’s Board of Supervisors, pulled rank and overruled all selection-committee members’ votes.
Jones’ unfaltering decision bucked the advice of his seven fellow panel members, all part of a search committee whose members twice voted in favor of a more qualified candidate, and against Jones’ unabashed favorite, Dr. Mu.
Jones made his unilateral actions despite strong, unambiguous input from all Jones’ committee colleagues who were united in their decision to not choose Dr. Mu.
Another step was when Jones, still ignoring the panelists’ protests, then placed the subject of Dr. Mu’s potential county employment on the Shasta County Board of Supervisors agenda.
The final step that guaranteed Mu’s appointment was when, at the Oct. 17 supervsiors meeting, two supervisors — Kevin Crye of District 1 and Chris Kelstrom of District 5 — quickly agreed with Jones and voted 3-2 to hire Dr. Mu.
District 3 Supervisor Mary Rickert and District 2 Supervisor Tim Garman voted against hiring Dr. Mu.
No disclosures, no recusals
However, prior to the vote, one significant piece of information was missing from supervisors’ discussions about Dr. Mu:
Neither Crye nor Kelstrom disclosed potential grounds for their possible recusal from participation in the Dr. Mu vote. Both Crye and Kelstrom had received 2022 campaign contributions from Dr. Mu, according to campaign finance forms filed last year with the state of California.
Subsequently, because neither Crye nor Kelstrom disclosed that information, they also did not volunteer potential conflicts of interest with regard to Dr. Mu’s campaign donations. Hence, neither man recused himself from the board’s vote for Dr. Mu, or mentioned a reason to do so.
Regarding Dr. Mu’s donations, Crye’s campaign received two contributions of $1,000 each from Dr. Mu, the first on May 3, 2022, and the second on Sept. 6, 2022, according to Schedule A attachments to Form 460.
Kelstrom’s campaign reported accepting a $1,000 contribution from Dr. Mu on May 31, 2022.
Because neither supervisor Rickert nor Supervisor Garman voted for Dr. Mu, had supervisors Kelstrom and Crye disclosed their conflict of interest, and had they subsequently recused themselves, the motion to appoint Mu would have failed.
Closed doors flung wide open
In the weeks following Dr. Mu’s appointment as the county’s health officer by the board’s three ultra-conservative supervisors, details of the inside story of what happened during closely-held personnel deliberations have been revealed to A News Cafe during a series of interviews with various health-officer search committee members; both on the record and confidential.
First to come forward, despite trepidation about potential retaliation, was Dr. Michael J. Vovakes, 75, of Red Bluff. He retired on Oct. 24 after serving more than three years as Shasta County’s Deputy Public Health Officer.
“I’m a bit leery of what they might do to me after what I witnessed when they fired Dr. Karen Ramstrom on a Tuesday back in early May of 2022 without stating a reason or a cause for her dismissal,” Vovakes said of Ramstrom, his former boss, and the person who hired him in 2020 to help her administer the county’s reaction to COVID.
The supervisors who dismissed Ramstrom in early 2022 were Jones, Les Baugh of District 5 and Garman, who was newly sworn in to replace former District 2 Supervisor Leonard Moty, removed from his seat in an angry recall.
Supervisors Mary Rickert of District 3 and former Supervisor Joe Chimenti of District 1 tried to keep Ramstrom as the county’s Public Health Officer, but were outvoted by Baugh, Jones and Garman.
In 2022, Baugh chose not to seek re-election after nearly 20 years on the county board, and Kelstrom defeated former Anderson Mayor Baron Browning in a runoff election for Baugh’s former District 5 seat.
Chimenti of District 1 also chose to step down in 2022, which left an opportunity for Crye to campaign against former Redding councilwoman and Dutch Bros. Coffee co-owner Erin Resner, who lost to Crye by 90 votes in a contentious November runoff for the District 1 board seat.
Crye is now facing a recall in early March of 2024.
The search for a qualified health officer
Besides Dr. Vovakes, other health-officer search-committee members included Jones, District 3 Supervisor Mary Rickert; three members from the medical community — Dr. Richard Yoder, Dr. John Coe and Dr. Nena Perry — as well as Public Health Branch Director Robin Schurig and Laura Burch, director of Shasta County’s Health and Human Services.
After two prior searches in 2022 to find a qualified Public Health Officer, in January of 2023 the Shasta County Board of Supervisors met in closed session on January 10 and it was reported afterward “the supervisors agreed to have Personnel draw up a Request for Proposals” from the local medical community to contract for someone to serve as a Public Health Officer, Schurig told members of the Shasta County Public Health Advisory Board (PHAB) during a regular public meeting, according to PHAB minutes approved at the advisory board’s March 8 meeting.
The advisory board is a group of county agency employees, medical health professionals and members of the public who volunteer to serve along with community members appointed by the Shasta County Board of Supervisors; one person representing each supervisor’s district, the board’s website states.
Meetings are held every other month — January, March, May, July, September and November — on the second Wednesday from noon to 2 p.m. The Advisory Board is governed by California’s open meetings law, the Ralph M. Brown Act.
At PHAB’s May 10, 2023, meeting, Schurig again updated the advisory board about the county’s search for a new Public Health Officer.
“After many unsuccessful recruitments and a Request for Proposal, the Health Officer recruitment will now stay open continuously until filled,” Schurig said, adding, “There is currently one qualified candidate who will be interviewed in the next couple weeks,” the meeting minutes state.
According to informed sources, Shasta County’s health officer searches were national in scope. However, no outside search consultant — also known in the trade as a headhunter — was hired to help locate a health officer, unlike the search for Shasta County’s Chief Executive Officer during the same time frame.
By July 12, 2023, however, Schurig was again asked by PHAB’s Executive Committee to update the entire advisory board on the county’s recruitment for a Public Health Officer.
The meeting minutes describe how Schurig explained the differences between previous search requirements, including possession of a license to practice medicine in California and prior experience in Public Health, along with a Master’s Degree in that discipline, and the board’s revised search criteria that no longer listed either of those qualifications on the county’s new recruitment flyer.
Fast forward to July 24, 2023, when the previously mentioned new search committee met to interview two candidates.
“Dr. Mu was one of the candidates, and it was readily apparent that although he had been practicing family medicine for some time in Redding, he had no training or experience in public health,” Dr. Vovakes said.
Dr. Mu also was not certified by the California Board of Medicine, Dr. Perry stated.
“As I commented to the Board of Supervisors, Dr. Mu was well-trained as a family physician, but has minimal training and/or expertise in or with Public Health. I do think, or perhaps hope and pray, that Dr. Mu could do a very good job if he can put aside his personal biases and truly look at what is in the county’s best interest — none of this anti-vax stuff. Public Health is just that: PUBLIC health — and it relies on everyone looking past him/herself to what is best for all of us,” Dr. Perry said.
Perry said that there’s no doubt that medical strides, improved general health and longevity have been because of good water, antibiotics and vaccines. She said that anyone who says otherwise is “beyond misguided and ignorant.”
One county insider familiar with the health-officer selection process observed that of the two candidates in the last interviews, one was extremely well-qualified, while the other was not.
The insider recalled that the second candidate, also a male, was licensed to practice in California, although was currently serving a medical practice in an eastern state. That candidate’s name is being withheld to protect his privacy.
Dr. Vovakes said there was also a female candidate from the Midwest who applied for the health officer position, but she withdrew as a contender before a background check could be conducted.
Dr. Vovakes added that he was under the impression that the woman was eventually hired by another nearby Northern California county.
Dr. Vovakes said that following panelists’ face-to-face interviews with the remaining two candidates, there was a consensus among all seven members of the search panel. They concluded that Dr. Mu was unqualified for the position, and voted in favor of the second candidate.
Supervisor Jones — the eighth panelist — was the only one in support of hiring Dr. Mu, someone who’d previously appeared before the Board of Supervisors, along with other medical professionals, to publicly decry state mandates, face masks and vaccinations as among the ways to fight COVID.
A source told A News Cafe: “When Monica Fugitt from Shasta County Support Services spoke with the search panel following their initial vote, she posed a hypothetical question: ‘If there were no other candidates, would the panel still reject Dr. Mu as its second choice?’ ”
In response to Fugitt’s question, once again the eight-member panel’s vote was split 7-1 to not offer Dr. Mu the job as health officer.
According to Dr. Vovakes, the seven panelists’ justification for not hiring Mu was simple: They believed Dr. Mu was not adequately qualified to be the county’s health officer.
Even so, an undeterred Jones ignored the panelists’ votes.
“Supervisor Jones was the only one who supported Dr. Mu,” Dr. Vovakes said.
“The rest of us felt Dr. Mu was not our first choice, nor was Dr. Mu our second choice. He simply was not qualified for the position. You have to understand that a health officer in California is very different from being a doctor in private practice where you are primarily concerned with the health of one individual, or that individual’s family.”
About Shasta County Public Health
After reorganization, the Shasta County Public Health Branch currently has 185 staff members, an increase of 50 positions since 2022. Services provided currently include Epidemiology and a Public Health Evaluations Unit at the Breslauer Way location that provides well water analysis among other services.
Recently added when Public Health was brought under the umbrella of Health and Human Services were Programs for Women, Infants and Children, better known as WIC, and the county’s Nurse-Family Partnership. Both of those programs are still located in downtown Redding, according to online minutes for PHAB meetings.
County Public Health Officials must be familiar with California Health and Safety Codes, which include assisting the state Health Department in the licensing and inspection of 13 types of healthcare facilities including hospitals, skilled nursing and hospice. Another of the functions is to oversee the collection and protection of vital records, including birth and death certificates, among others, according to the California Department of Public Health website.
When asked to describe their reactions to the Board of Supervisors’ controversial 3-2 choice to select Dr. Mu as the county’s next Public Health Officer, there was a loud chorus of disbelief, and even outrage from all sources contacted for this story.
“I was floored that Dr. Mu had been selected, especially as there was no comment about the other incredibly well-qualified candidate,” Dr. Perry stated.
“And Dr. Dhanuka’s subsequent comment about (Dr. Mu’s) extensive Public Health training and experience as a medical student and resident is fallacious.”
“I have no idea how the decision to offer (Dr. Mu) the job came about, and I was not privy to any other discussions,” she continued, noting that the board’s discussion was held in closed session prior to Dr. Mu’s June 17 appointment.
During the board’s public discussion, supervisors Garman and Rickert dissented in offering Dr. Mu the appointment.
But Jones was unwavering in his support of Dr. Mu. And when Rickert reminded Jones of the appointed committee members who’d dedicated time and effort to participate in the health-officer recommendation process, Jones’ dismissive statements about “irrelevant” and “meaningless” advisory committees drew some gasps from the audience.
An incredulous Rickert immediately questioned Jones’ statement.
“So you’re saying that the panel — the interview panels were meaningless,” Rickert asked. “Is that what you just said?”
Jones corrected Rickert.
“No. It’s the ultimate authority of this governing body to make the decision, not who was appointed to be on those panels,” Jones said.
Rickert pressed on.
“Well, the panels were appointed — there were, I have to find out if I can say — but, there was a panel appointed, and the panel was to make a recommendation to the board,” Rickert said. “I think for transparency purposes in Shasta County, in 2023, it’s important that that information be given to the public.”
Jones defended his position.
“I think it’s irrelevant,” Jones said.
Regarding whether supervisors could disclose information during the board meeting regarding the panel’s make-up, County Counsel Gretchen Stuhr cautioned that such deliberations were considered personnel matters, and conducted in closed session according to the Brown Act.
When approached by A News Cafe to be interviewed for this story, Rickert politely declined and referred all questions to Personnel Director Monica Fugitt.
“Good luck with your story,” was Rickert’s only reply.
More worrisome, perhaps, is the general consensus among the county’s public health employees, medical professionals and members of the public that there is something rotten in the workings of Shasta County.
“Dr. Mu is certainly going to have to earn the trust of the medical community at large,” stated Dr. Vovakes.
“I think Dr. Mu has a ways to go on earning back the trust of the Public Health staff, where there is already a 20-percent vacancy rate for approved positions. I fear there may be more positions going vacant soon.”
Dr. Dave Short: Practical, not political
One member of the medical community who was not part of the search committee’s efforts was Dr. David Short, 71, a lifelong resident of Redding who recently retired from family practice. He identified when the more significant health-officer issue first occurred.
“The real problem, in my opinion, was the firing of the previous Public Health Officer without cause,” Short said during an hour-long telephone conversation with A News Cafe.
Short addressed the public uproar over COVID, and nationwide news reports that half of all public health workers suffered extreme burnout during COVID due to large numbers of infections, and even deaths due to treating patients who were not even showing symptoms, even though they were infected.
“It only stands to reason it would be difficult to fill Dr. Ramstrom’s position,” Short said.
Short clarified that he does not see Dr. Mu as the villain in this case.
“Everyone around here could benefit from finding out a lot more about public health,” Short said.
“Throughout this whole ordeal, I’ve been trying my best to defuse the political side of all this. I don’t want to get into a political posture on vaccines, however, speaking personally, I considered the mRNA vaccines to be a gift from God. I certainly was vocal about protecting others with vaccines when speaking with my patients.”
An early adopter of COVID vaccines due to Short’s age and other co-morbidity factors such as treating sick patients all day long, Short said he was one of the first doctors in Shasta County to sign up for the vaccines when they were first released to medical professionals on a trial basis.
“I was sort of a test case since I was one of the older doctors in my practice,” said Short, who was set to retire until COVID hit, so he stayed on for another couple of years to help his patients deal with the disease.
“I also wrote letters to our supervisors, the chief of police and the county sheriff,” Short said.
“I really believe such people in positions of authority can have a much larger role in educating the public about the dangers of a potentially deadly disease that can easily be transmitted by people who are not showing any symptoms.”
Pending public health degree for eventual full-time health officer
As A News Cafe reported earlier, Dr. Mu was scheduled to begin official employment with the county on Oct. 23, with a salary of $106.86 per hour, or $18,522 per month.
Dr. Mu will also receive reimbursement for tuition and the cost of required textbooks necessary to obtain his Master’s of Public Health degree.
Although the county’s health officer position is considered full-time employment, Dr. Mu’s contract grants him time to gradually disassociate from his current family medicine practice. He is expected to ease into his full-time duties by working at 40 percent during the first two months, 50 percent in month three, 60 percent in month four, and 80 percent in months five and six.
At that rate, it’s likely that sometime in the spring Dr. Mu will be working as Shasta County’s full-time health officer. However, it remains unknown how long it will take Dr. Mu to complete his studies and earn a master’s degree in public health.
Only time will tell how Shasta County residents will fare under Dr. Mu’s leadership if another novel coronavirus — or worse — raises its head.
Editor’s note: Dr. Mu did not respond to A News Cafe’s numerous requests for comment.