Douglas County reps level accusations at Tri-County Health

Agency refutes claims of 'censorship,' hears claim of 'compromised' board members

Ellis Arnold
earnold@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 9/15/21

Kevin Bracken, Douglas County's newest representative on the Tri-County Health Department board — a longtime critic of the agency — has asked it to investigate what he alleges was “illegal” …

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Douglas County reps level accusations at Tri-County Health

Agency refutes claims of 'censorship,' hears claim of 'compromised' board members

Posted

Kevin Bracken, Douglas County's newest representative on the Tri-County Health Department board — a longtime critic of the agency — has asked it to investigate what he alleges was “illegal” activity regarding the video recording of the board's Aug. 30 meeting.

And another Douglas County representative to the board, Linda Fielding, accused fellow board members of being "compromised" at the meeting.

The Aug. 30 meeting saw contentious exchanges between Tri-County officials leading up to the agency's decision to require mask wearing by everyone inside schools as a COVID-19 safety measure and to repeal the ability of counties to opt out of its public health orders.

Those actions have met with stout opposition from Douglas County's elected commissioners, who are taking steps to pull the county out of its 55-year-old relationship with Tri-County, the public-health agency for Douglas, Adams and Arapahoe counties. The Douglas County School District is enforcing the mask rule, however.

Kevin Bracken emailed his accusations to other Tri-County board members, along with elected leaders in the three counties. The email was forwarded to Colorado Community Media by Douglas County Commissioner George Teal.

In his email, Bracken referred to his comments at the Aug. 30 meeting.

“I just want it noted that the (video of the) Aug. 30 meeting had a very concerning fast forward through several of the board members' comments. (Comments of) mine and Dr. Fielding in particular were (affected) more than any other board members,” Bracken said during the Board of Health's Sept. 9 meeting.

Bracken added: “I find it very concerning if this file was edited.”

'Was it intentional or not?'

Ronnae Brockman, the Tri-County executive assistant who helps run health board meetings, criticized Bracken's comments and called them “false claims.”

“If you continue to engage in this hostile and defamatory behavior, I will take legal action against you,” Brockman told Bracken.

Bracken responded that he never alleged that Brockman, specifically, edited the video.

Brockman said that because of her position, when Bracken says a video was edited, “that is defamatory to me.”

“There is a difference between saying, 'Hey, you guys, I noticed this is something happened on your video,'” Brockman said. “It's very different than your accusatory email.”

Board President Kaia Gallagher, an Arapahoe County representative, acknowledged there was disruption in the video, saying: “The question really is, was it intentional or not?”

Gallagher said a disruption in recording has occurred before.

“To the extent possible, the Tri-County Health Department staff will look into it,” Gallagher said. Bracken said the Aug. 30 video is the only file that has been fast-forwarded through “in the recordings I've had an opportunity to watch.”

Jan Brainard, another Board of Health member from Arapahoe County, said she remembers that “after the very first Zoom meeting,” referring to a video-conferencing service used to conduct meetings remotely, she noticed a problem with the video recording.

“I called or sent an email to Ronnae (Brockman) and asked her where I could find it, and it was the exact same thing. There were parts of it missing,” Brainard said.

She added: “My point being that this is not intentional. It was not directed at Mr. Bracken.”

Bracken appears to be correct that his comments at the Aug. 30 meeting were affected by the disruption more than other board members' comments in the period that runs from roughly 49:00 to 1:12:00 in the recording, when much of the board discussion took place.

But many comments from John Douglas, executive director of Tri-County Health, were also disrupted, including comments from Douglas that appeared not to be in response to Bracken. Not all of Bracken's comments were disrupted.

Claims of members 'compromised'

What could be called the most controversial part of the meeting discussion is still almost entirely intact on the recording. That's when Fielding references Colorado statute 18-8-306, a state law that prohibits coercion of public officials. The law bars “attempts to influence any public servant.”

“I have information directly about one case, and there may be other cases that I suspect, and this is concerning board members who have been basically compromised because they have had complaints filed against them,” Fielding said during the Aug. 30 meeting.

During the meeting, Fielding called the meeting itself “compromised” and said it should be canceled “until we can resolve the status of those board members.”

It wasn't clear from her comments which board members Fielding was referring to or where complaints were allegedly filed, and she did not offer evidence to back her claims of coercion. Colorado Community Media reached out to Fielding with questions about the allegations, but she did not respond.

Asked about Fielding's claims, Becky O'Guin, spokesperson for Tri-County Health, said on Sept. 1: “We ... do not have information on what Dr. Fielding mentioned during the meeting. Any legal issues would be taken up in executive session with the Board of Health and (its) legal counsel,” An executive session is a closed-door meeting, often held to discuss legal questions.

HIPAA a factor, Tri-County says

During the Sept. 9 Board of Health meeting, after Bracken raised his concerns about the Aug. 30 meeting video, Fielding suggested that Tri-County staff contact Zoom to try to improve the quality of meeting recordings and recover some of what was fast-forwarded through; Bracken seconded that motion. The board voted it down.

An email from Bracken to other board members and county officials regarding the meeting video said: “I am requesting an investigation into tampering, censorship, and this illegal activity.”

A statement from O'Guin on Sept. 10 statement said: “TCHD staff did not edit the video of the August 30th Board of Health meeting and have no control over where the videos are compressed. That this issue occurred during Mr. Bracken's and Dr. Fielding's comments is entirely coincidental. Finally, the compression issue isn't unique to the August 30th Board of Health meeting. It has occurred on recordings of other Board meetings as well as internal TCHD meetings.”

O'Guin's Sept. 10 statement noted that the meeting videos often include places where the video is “compressed” and the sentences are unintelligible, meaning they sound like they are being “fast-forwarded” through.

O'Guin pointed to recordings of Tri-County's previous three regular Board of Health meetings as examples of when the disruption occurred in the past. She noted disruption in the June 10 meeting at 45:14, in the July 8 meeting at 56:51 and 1:05:17, and in the Aug. 12 meeting at 33:07.

“We have talked to Zoom about this issue and have been told that, unless we record to the cloud, we will continue to experience these issues. Unfortunately, TCHD is prohibited from recording to the cloud by HIPAA and must record the meeting on a TCHD computer,” O'Guin's statement read. ("The cloud" refers to the use of remote internet services rather than software on a user's own computer.)

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, is a federal law that required the creation of national standards to protect sensitive patient health information from being disclosed without the patient's consent or knowledge, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

Asked how HIPAA applies to the situation, O’Guin on Sept. 13 said: "TCHD has (an) enterprise-wide Zoom account with HIPAA-compliant features. TCHD staff use Zoom for telehealth appointments and other tasks that involve handling protected health information (PHI) on clients." (Telehealth means the providing of health care or public-health activities remotely via telecommunications technology, such as videoconferencing.)

"We have agency-wide HIPAA policies and procedures and through our Zoom account, staff are blocked from recording to the Zoom Cloud to reduce the potential for accidental disclosure of PHI because the Zoom Cloud is not HIPAA-compliant and not under TCHD’s control," O'Guin continued. "We are looking into purchasing additional Zoom licenses that are outside of our HIPAA-compliant licenses to enable better Zoom recording quality."

"We are considering an alternative Zoom account that lacks HIPAA-compliant features for public meetings," O'Guin added.

Based on meeting length according to the official meeting minutes and the length of the recording, about 30 minutes was lost from the Aug. 30 meeting, according to O'Guin.

Zoom automatically converts recordings to an MP4 file when the meeting ends, and this file was uploaded in its entirety to Tri-County's website, O'Guin said.

“The file cannot be fixed. This is how the video was converted by Zoom. Please note that TCHD isn't required to post these recordings but did so in an effort to be transparent,” O'Guin said.

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