By Tim Horan

The Salina Journal

After a rocky six months as director of the Saline County Health Department, Bronson Farmer resigned Tuesday, effective immediately, according to a news release from Saline County commissioners.

"I think we we're going in two different directions. I think he wanted to pursue something else," Commission Chairman Randy Duncan said. "I think after six months he decided maybe this wasn't the job for him and he wanted to look for something else. You can talk to him to see what his thoughts are. I think in the end, it will work out fine for everyone."

Farmer could not be reached for comment.

The search for a new director will begin immediately, commissioners said.

Commissioner John Price said that Gary Nelson, a registered nurse, will assume the duties of public health officer. Nelson is a member of the Professional Advisory Committee for the Saline County Health Department and formerly served on the board of the Salina-Saline County Health Department.

Commissioners unanimously accepted Farmer's resignation during a meeting late Tuesday afternoon. An executive session had been scheduled for 3 p.m. to discuss nonelected personnel.

Controversial at start

Farmer was controversial from the candidate stage to the day of his resignation.

When Farmer and interim health department director Suzette Brotton were interviewed for the health department director job, residents questioned why Farmer, who had been fired after 15 years with the health department, was selected as a candidate.

Officials said Farmer was fired because of falsifying mileage reimbursement records, a charge he denied. He said he was fired for political reasons because he sided with the county commission in its often-contentious relationship with the city over the former Salina-Saline County Health Department.

Joint agreement dissolved

The health department for decades was operated and funded jointly by the city and county. After problems arose with the roof structure of the health department building, the city and county couldn't agree on how to resolve the problem -- whether to build a new structure, renovate an existing structure or fix the current building.

The city dissolved the joint operating and funding agreement as of the end of December and the county took over the health department on Jan. 1.

Farmer hired as director

Commissioners voted 2-1 on March 26 to hire Farmer as director, with Commissioner Jim Gile voting no.

Many questioned the appointment of Farmer, who has a bachelor's degree in biology and had been a lead sanitarian for the health department.

On Farmer's first day on the job, on April 1, a former health department employee accused him of sexually harassing her when both worked at the health department in 2006.

Melissa Heinrich Lill cited for county commissioners several incidents, one of which occurred at Rolling Hills Zoo.

Farmer denied the charges.

Saline County Sheriff Glen Kochanowski reopened an investigation into the claims, but later dropped the case because he said the statute of limitations had expired.

Grant contracts late

In September, commissioners discussed with Farmer the need for a better system of tracking deadlines for submission of grant requests through the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, as many of the contracts were being submitted late to county commissioners for their approval.

"You guys need to make a little chart and put it on the wall," Price said at a meeting.

An unanswered call

On Tuesday, his final day, county commissioners discussed an unanswered phone call from Salina Regional Health Center officials to the health department's 24-hour hotline concerning a possible case of meningitis (see related story).

Birth control divisive

Farmer did fight for the right of the health department's female clients to be prescribed long-acting, reversible contraceptive devices, called IUDs, and a hormonal patch. In May, commissioners rejected funding for the device, which Price said could cause abortion.

"It seems like science tells us that these are not abortive," Farmer told the commission at a meeting. "The federal government says they are not abortive. Our guidelines state they are not abortive."

In the past two weeks, Farmer has been seeking commission approval of another KDHE grant. First, he said he wanted to purchase a birth control pill, Portia, which Price claimed could be used as a morning-after pill. After Price objected, Farmer requested that the grant be approved and be used to fund birth control pills approved by commissioners.

On the morning of his resignation, Farmer explained to commissioners that birth control pills, when used as prescribed, prevent pregnancy and thus prevent abortion.

"Unwanted pregnancies are the main reason for abortion," Farmer said.

(c)2014 The Salina Journal