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Health care foundation won’t remove anti-vax, anti-mask trustee

Health care foundation won’t remove anti-vax, anti-mask trustee

Despite calls to do so, a nonprofit health care foundation charged with managing more than $13 million of Haywood County taxpayer money in support of public health initiatives has declined to hold a removal vote regarding one trustee’s public anti-mask, anti-vaccine advocacy. 

“We had a lengthy discussion about the trustees and their responsibilities and it was determined that we would not take action against a trustee at this time,” said Anthony Sutton, chair of the Haywood Healthcare Foundation’s board of trustees, on Feb. 26. 

On Jan. 13, Sutton told  The Smoky Mountain News that a “request for removal as per bylaws” was submitted by an anonymous trustee, regarding fellow trustee Janet Presson. Sutton said at the time that the board’s nominating committee had decided that the issue should come before the full board. 

Presson’s been active in advancing against the use of masks and vaccinations that fly in the face of guidance provided by international, national, state and local health officials. 

Her Facebook page has displayed a number of claims labeled as false by fact-checkers, as well as posts calling mask usage “child abuse.” Presson had also been issuing public comment during local government board meetings since shortly after she was appointed to the Haywood Healthcare Foundation board in April 2019. 

In July of that year, Presson helped host an anti-vax movie screening  at the Haywood County Public Library in Waynesville featuring a documentary film full of misinformation and debunked studies by discredited former medical professionals. At that event, she also attempted to ban members of the local media, including The Smoky Mountain News, The Mountaineer and WLOS-TV, from recording or filming. 

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After her most recent appearance before the Town of Waynesville Board of Aldermen on Dec. 8, 2020, The Smoky Mountain News began receiving letters from readers, demanding her removal from the HHF Board of Trustees. Bethel resident Tom Tomaka called her “an extremist” whose “discredited views can have a detrimental effect on the health and lives of our residents.” 

While Presson is free to hold those views and advance them as a public figure, they appear in baffling contradiction to the HHF’s mission statement of improving “… the health status of Haywood County, its individuals and families through educational programs, grants, scholarships and leadership opportunities … quality healthcare is essential to a productive life.”

When SMN asked HHF trustees to weigh in on how Presson’s views aligned with that mission on Jan. 13, only two gave answers. Both Teresa Liner and Neil Budde said they were not in agreement with Presson’s false claims, but neither answered the actual question. Trustees Dr. Barbara Parker, Julie Davis, Hylah Birenbaum, Julia Freeman, Jennifer Heaberlin, Jonathan Key, Linda Nulsen, Carmine Rocco, Phyllis Prevost, Charles Thomas, Allen and Cassie Braswell, Peggy Melville and Judy Ross failed to respond. 

Despite not taking a vote on the issue of Presson’s removal, HHF’s board was quick to address the contradiction by reiterating what, exactly, it means to be an unelected trustee on a nonprofit health care foundation board in charge of millions in taxpayer money. 

“We did clarify who could speak on behalf of the foundation and directed trustees that they were not to make statements on behalf of the foundation, other than the executive committee,” Sutton said. 

Presson has never claimed to represent or to speak on behalf of the HHF. For now, Presson will continue in her role as trustee of the foundation, which was initially funded with the proceeds of the sale of the old public hospital. 

“Ms. Presson’s term with the foundation ends in Feb. of 2022, so she’ll remain for five more meetings,” Sutton said. “She will also abstain from voting on anything we would consider a conflict.” 

Trustees are eligible for re-appointment at the end of their three-year terms. 

“I don’t feel that she would come out of the renomination process with a positive recommendation,” Sutton said. 

Sutton added that as new members are nominated in the future, they’ll pay a little more attention to prospective trustees. 

“We will continue to do our best to nominate people who have the best healthcare ideas for the county, and we’ll enhance our vetting process to be sure they’re more in line with that,” Sutton said. “However, we do encourage a diverse board. We want as many ideas as possible and I think this has brought vaccination to the forefront.”

In its role of advancing public health initiatives — both before, and after the onset of the Coronavirus Pandemic — the HHF usually donates around $300,000 to a plethora of other local nonprofits to help advance its mission. 

In fact, at the same Feb. 22 meeting where Presson’s removal was discussed, the board moved forward with a substantial donation toward Haywood County’s COVID-19 vaccination effort. 

“We funded the county approximately $38,000 to help the county with vaccination operations at the fairgrounds,” Sutton said. “We want the community to understand the importance of vaccinations so we can all get back to normal business. We also look forward to working with the county and the health dept in the future, in meeting needs for Covid-19 vaccinations.”

When reached for comment on this story by SMN, Janet Presson said she had none. 

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