Lori Christenson

Lori Christenson

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After a months-long hiring process, Gallatin County will have a new public health officer.

The lengthy hiring process, complicated by a new law that limits the power of local health boards, ended Tuesday after both the Gallatin County Commission and Bozeman City Commission moved to appoint Lori Christenson as health officer.

As of Monday, Christenson, who is the director of environmental health services at the health department, took on the role of interim health officer. Matt Kelley, who held the position for 11 years, stepped down Sunday.

Kelley announced in March that he would leave his position for a new job as CEO of Montana Public Health Institute.

The Gallatin City-County Board of Health recommended Christenson for the job at the end of May.

A hiring committee, comprised of Board of Health members, staff from the health department and both city and county commissioners, vetted Christenson for the position.

Of thirteen applicants, Christenson was one of three finalists for the job. The other finalists considered by the hiring committee include Junie Delizo and Leslie Carroll.

“She was the best choice of the ones who applied,” Commissioner Joe Skinner said during the county commission’s Tuesday meeting. “She’s a good fit because she’s fully immersed in the community and health department.”

Skinner was part of the health board’s hiring committee, which also included Board of Health Chair Becky Franks, City Commissioner I-Ho Pomeroy and two employees from the health department.

Prior to just a few months ago, the Board of Health would have appointed Christenson itself. But a change made this spring in state law limited its hiring power.

House Bill 121, signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte in April, revoked the power from the Board of Health to appoint a health officer itself. The law also requires approval by local government on orders from health boards or health officers.

Skinner said he felt some hesitancy appointing Christenson now, considering the city and county are still working to understand the changes caused by both House Bill 121 and House Bill 257 — which similarly limits the power of health boards and local governments to enact and enforce health orders.

“There will be issues down the road that we don’t understand because of House Bill 257 that will affect her employment, who she works for and how she performs her duties, but I’m confident we can work through those,” Skinner said.

All three commissioners moved to approve Christenson. Commissioner Scott MacFarlane said Christenson would provide much needed stability for the health department staff after a particularly challenging year.

Commissioner Zach Brown said he liked seeing Christenson’s past experience working with the Human Resources Development Council. She also worked at the Gallatin Valley Food Bank.

“It’s a really important perspective to bring to the position and to the health department,” Brown said.

Christenson told the County Commission on Tuesday that she appreciated the public hiring process for the position “especially as we move out of a very stressful time in our community.”

“I’ve always thought that leading a group of people through challenging times is one of the most important things we can do,” Christenson said. “It’s been a pleasure to work with staff through the pandemic, as well as the community. I look forward to continuing to do so.”

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Juliana Sukut can be reached at 582-2630 or jsukut@dailychronicle.com

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