Val Verde County Judge Lewis G. Owens Jr. said he will call a special meeting Monday to ask county commissioners court to fire Dr. J.J. Gutierrez as the county’s local health authority; Friday morning Owens walked back his intentions and said he will give Gutierrez an opportunity to come up with a plan.
Gutierrez has served as the Val Verde County local health authority since late April, when Val Verde County Commissioners Court appointed him to the post. He was appointed the local health authority for the city of Del Rio in July.
That appointment by the city is one of the reasons the county judge wanted commissioners court to reconsider Gutierrez’s appointment as the local health authority for the county, Owens said in an interview after Wednesday’s county commissioners court session.
During the commissioners court, Owens told the four commissioners, other county elected leaders and county administrators he plans to schedule a special meeting on Monday.
“I’m going to present some information to the court on Monday during the special meeting and then get direction from the court on what is it that they want to do,” Owens said.
“I really believe – and this is just my opinion, not the court’s – that with the city hiring a local health authority, even if it’s the same person, who does he answer to, if there’s a decision that he needs guidance on? Who’s he going to listen to? I think it’s going to cloud and muddy the waters,” Owens added.
The county judge said he has spoken to City Councilman Raul C. Ojeda, Councilman Alfredo “Fred” Carranza Jr. and City Manager Matt Wojnowski.
“I told them that I really believe it’s a conflict of interest that you have a councilwoman, who is the director of a nursing home – and I don’t know whether it is or it isn’t, but I think there is a conflict of interest – who has been pushing to hire Dr. Gutierrez as the local health authority for the city, who has actually gone out and spoken to commissioners, trying to get that done, when Dr. Gutierrez is a medical director at two of our local nursing homes, and Councilwoman Liz Elizalde De Calderon is the director of one of those nursing homes,” Owens said.
“I think we need to look at all that and see how we’re going to handle that,” the county judge said.
Friday morning Owens posted a video on Facebook saying that Gutierrez’s status as local health authority for Val Verde County will not be in the agenda for Monday’s special called meeting.
“We’ve had several phone calls since Wednesday, asking for him (Gutierrez) to come up with a plan. Why don’t we give him an opportunity to come up with a plan, now that he is already signed with the city and he works with the county at the same time,” Owens said in the video.
Owens also said city council members asked him to give Gutierrez an opportunity to come up with a plan.
“So I had to file my agenda by nine o’clock today in order to have a meeting which we were going to have a special called meeting anyway on Monday. There is not, I repeat there is not an item on Monday’s meeting to discuss employment of Dr. Gutierrez’s as local health authority,” the county judge said.
Interviewed by the News-Herald on Wednesday, Owens said he is also concerned about the number of COVID deaths among local nursing home residents in relation to the total number of COVID-related deaths in the county.
“I saw some numbers a little while ago, and I’m not pointing fingers at any one nursing home, but out of 63 individuals who were COVID-positive when they passed – and I didn’t say that they passed because of COVID, but they were COVID-positive when they passed – 11 of those are from nursing homes, and when you look at that, they are our most vulnerable population, and all 11 passed in the nursing homes. They never made it to Val Verde Regional Medical Center. That is what I was told last night, so I have a concern,” Owens said.
Owens said Wednesday city officials never discussed Gutierrez’s appointment as the city’s local health authority with county officials.
“They talked about helping us with the funds for the contact tracers. They talked about helping us with the funds for an RN. They talked about helping us with funds for the doctors. The city talked about all this. We never sat in a meeting, other than one we had in April, where we told them we were about to hire a local health authority … and at that point there was a conversation where they said the city would hire him too, and then it went away, because I told them that he (the local health authority) could only work for one boss,” Owens said.
“The local health authority advises anybody that’s seeking advice, but he can only work for one entity, or it gets cloudy,” Owens said.
Each one of Councilwoman Elizabeth “Liz” Elizalde de Calderon, and Dr. J.J. Gutierrez responded to Owens’ allegations with written statements, each one of them clarifying their positions.
Editor's note: Updated story, including Judge Owens' statements made Friday in a Facebook post.