By Mike Renzella
The Haldimand Press
HALDIMAND — After nearly two hours in a closed-door meeting with legal counsel, members of Haldimand Norfolk’s Board of Health (BOH) voted 8 to 1 in favour of moving forward with its controversial appointment of outspoken new Acting Medical Officer of Health (MOH) Dr. Matt Strauss.
The backlash over Strauss’ appointment spread quickly online once news of his polarizing views on pandemic lockdowns surfaced via a series of tweets made by Strauss. This included tweets in which he referred to businesses rebelling against lockdowns as “heroes”, and a now infamous tweet on August 29, 2021 that only said, “Live free or die.”
Haldimand Mayor Ken Hewitt addressed the controversy at the meeting on Monday evening. Since Haldimand has no seat on the BOH, Hewitt was not involved in the vote to hire Strauss, but he was involved in the interview process: “There were two candidates that were presented to us. In the context of this pandemic, it’s fair to say that most people … wouldn’t want this job.”
“There was a lot of discussion and debate. Our concerns that we had with the doctor that has been appointed was that there were some edgy comments on social media, but I think both myself, Mayor Chopp, and many other politicians in the past couple years could have fingers pointed at them for edgy comments, edgy actions,” Hewitt continued, noting there was also “lively discussion with the previous medical officer about some of the decisions.”
Hewitt said he struggled with some of the comments made recently by Norfolk councillors, who are also BOH members, regarding their change in opinion on Strauss after the backlash: “I think that many of the conversations were had well before your meeting, and those conversations were quite clear,” said Hewitt. He added that Strauss is in full support of vaccines and that he understands the lack of support for lockdowns: “I’ve had my frustrations with respect to how shutdowns occurred and how reopenings occurred.”
Hewitt said that he was prepared to support the appointment, but that he wanted to see something in writing that assures Dr. Strauss will follow protocols, including provincially mandated orders.
Cathy Case, General Manager of Corporate and Social Services for Haldimand, said that while Haldimand will support Strauss’ appointment, their “expectation as a recipient of health and social services, public health in particular, is that this employee-employer relationship will be managed just like any other where expectations are set and expected within the organization.”
She reminded BOH members that Haldimand currently has a motion on record directing staff to review the governance model of the BOH, as it is fully controlled by Norfolk Council: “We do believe it is a flawed governance model that doesn’t give Haldimand County equal representation…. We believe that this issue could potentially reflect that exact concern that we have.”
Strauss officially began his role as the new Acting MOH on September 14, relieving interim MOH Dr. Alex Hukowich, who was celebrated during his final media briefing this week for his candor, frankness, and honesty during his short tenure following the resignation of Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, who himself had a history of controversial decisions for additional restrictions placed on migrant workers and the farms housing them.
“The goal was to select the best candidate to be our representative,” said BOH member Michael Columbus. “Staff have been supportive of Dr. Strauss right from the beginning…. There’s a lot more to being MOH than just the COVID issue. There’s all kinds of issues that haven’t even been discussed.”
He added, in regard to potential legal action Strauss could take against the Board for reversing their decision following his contract being signed: “I don’t feel like wasting any more taxpayer money on liability lawsuits.”
“I’m putting a lot of weight and value in the legal advice we have received and I’m glad we had that benefit before making our final decision,” added BOH member Ian Rabbits. “We’ve heard from medical professionals as well as members of the public. I want to thank them for reaching out to us with their endorsements and their referrals of Dr. Strauss.”
“I’ve been very silent on this issue out of fear of making potentially libelous comments myself,” he continued. “I was part of the original decision and I’m standing by it…. Dr. Strauss will provide a benefit to our community.”
“It’s very important to me that I hear from Dr. Strauss with his commitments as well to the residents of Haldimand Norfolk and the health and safety of our communities,” added BOH member Linda Vandendriessche, who stood by claims she made last week stating that she had not been aware of Strauss’ tweets prior to his appointment.
“The last week or so has been extremely difficult for many people…. There’s been some very concerning discussion,” said BOH member Kim Huffman. “I received quite a few calls that said, ‘We don’t want anymore masks, we don’t want any more social distancing, we don’t want any more lockdowns, we want Dr. Strauss.’ I just wanted to be clear to the public that’s not the case. Those provincially mandated laws will continue to apply in Haldimand Norfolk.”
While several Board members raised concerns about Strauss previously, Amy Martin was the lone vote against keeping him on, making no further comments about her concerns raised in last week’s BOH meeting. Vandendriessche appeared to agree with her, as when asked if she would support the vote, she stated simply, “Yes, unfortunately.”