Damakant Jayshi

The Marathon County Board of Supervisors will establish a multi-county department to replace an existing tri-county agreement on North Central Health Care, giving its already powerful four-member Executive Committee additional decision-making powers.

The Amended and Restated Intergovernmental Agreement abolishes the position of chief executive officer (CEO) of NCHC, which will be known as the North Central Community Services Program (NCCSP). The head of the rebranded organization would now be an executive director, whose powers have been pruned in the amended pact. 

Among the significant changes is a more powerful role for the NCCSP Executive Committee. The changes will make it a body that “operate(s) in similar form as the county executive or administrator model.” The group will have unambiguous governing and policy-making roles and more discretionary powers over the removal, compensation and budget related to the executive head of the NCCSP.

In the previous tri-county agreement, both appointment and removal of the head as well as compensation relied on approval by the three county boards, from Marathon, Langlade and Lincoln Counties. The boards’ role in appointment has been limited to receiving “progress reports” over the hiring. On budgetary matters, the NCCSP Board’s role has been eliminated, though the budget will still undergo approval by each respective county board. 

The administrative heads or representatives of the three counties and a representative of the Marathon County Board of Supervisors appointed by the Marathon County administrator serve on the Executive Committee and that composition has been retained. At present, Marathon County Board Chair Kurt Gibbs is the fourth member. On Tuesday, Supervisor John Robinson’s amendment to requiring pre-approval for the administrator’s appointment was defeated by a vote of 18-15. County Administrator Lance Leonhard said the existing provisions already require the county board’s approval. Robinson said he wanted to the public to clearly know that appointments are approved by the board.

The vote to approve the amended partnership at the Marathon County Board meeting on Tuesday was unanimous after a lengthy discussion. Representatives from the two other Counties – Langlade’s Corporation Counsel Robin Stowe and Lincoln’s Administrative Coordinator Cate Wylie – said their boards will also approve the agreement and said they were speaking on behalf of their respective board chairs. Once the plan is approved by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS), the new agreement will become operational.

In its new avatar, North Central will have several direct and indirect oversight bodies – the NCCSP Executive Committee, the NCCSP Board and the respective county boards – but it is the four-member committee that has a significant say in the operational, financial and policy-making aspects of the organization. North Central provides community mental health, alcoholism and drug abuse services program for residents in the three counties.

The publicly-stated rationale behind the change is to “strengthen the long-term viability of the tri-county partnership between Langlade, Lincoln, and Marathon Counties” and to “promote transparency and accountability that the member counties desire.” 

The changes come after an investigation into the compensation package of former CEO of NCHC, Michael Loy, and additional benefits for top executives of the organization. Loy resigned in July 2021, seven months after NCHC Board Chair Jeff Zriny was forced out over the matter. A power struggle within county leadership was said to be behind Loy’s whole episode, with Zriny locking horns with members on the Retained County Board Authority Committee, the predecessor body of the NCHC Executive Committee. Wausau Police Department Chief Benjamin Bliven in 2021 resigned from the NCHC Board in protest. Gibbs has denied any improper conduct.

“It is a continued improvement effort that we’ve been working with, and the goal has been through the Executive Committee as well as the North Central Board to really strengthen the agreement,” Marathon County Administrator Leonhard told the Marathon County Board. “There are some facets of it that do that. I certainly support, as do the other members of the Executive Committee, the intent of the restated agreement.”

Under the revised agreement, NCCSP Board has been unambiguously limited to a policy-making role.

The NCCSP Board will have 14 members, with four from the Executive Committee, and of the remaining 10 members, seven will be from Marathon, two from Lincoln and one from Langlade County. “The board members shall be allotted to the Counties proportionally based on the approximate share of the NCCSP’s overall budget expenditures on behalf of each respective member county at the time the Agreement was signed,” says the amended agreement.

Tuesday’s meeting began with a briefing from attorney Andrew T. Phillips, from the law firm Attolles Law, S.C., who helped prepare the draft of the revision. Phillips was previously with von Briesen & Roper, S.C., the law firm that investigated the compensation and benefits package that led to Loy’s resignation. The firm submitted a 45-page report in July last year after the investigation concluded.

In a memo to the Marathon County Board of Supervisors, Phillips explained the reasons behind the operational model he recommended for the revised tri-county partnership.

The attorney said the county boards engaged him to recommend steps to increase transparency, to increase accountability and connectivity between the counties themselves as members of North Central, and, as desired by the Executive Committee, a governance and organizational structure that led to a “decisive decision-making process” to improve the services offered by North Central. “Ultimately, we recommend the member counties adopt an ‘Executive Committee’ Model for NCCSP,” Phillips’ memo said.