Michigan health director: Disagreement between Whitmer, Gordon 'possible'

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing Michigan health director Elizabeth Hertel said Thursday that it's possible there was a disagreement between her predecessor, Robert Gordon, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer over how to combat COVID-19. 

Gordon abruptly resigned from his post leading the Department of Health and Human Services on Jan. 22, fewer than eight hours after signing an epidemic order allowing restaurants to reopen indoor dining. The Detroit News reported Monday that he and Whitmer's administration later reached a separation agreement that provided Gordon $155,506 and barred the two sides from discussing the reasons for his departure publicly.

Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services

At the start of a Thursday afternoon Senate hearing, Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, asked Hertel whether there's a possibility that Whitmer and Gordon "had a difference of opinion on the reopening of our economy, engaging with schools and other engagements."

"Yes, it's possible," replied Hertel, who served as the senior chief deputy director for administration under Gordon. Later, however, Hertel said of the possibility, "I wasn’t involved in the director’s resignation, so I don’t know.”

Ananich also asked Hertel how the department's epidemic orders — restrictions on businesses and gatherings — had changed since Gordon left and she took over.

"Have they moved more toward reopening, have they stayed the same or did they become more restrictive?" Ananich asked.

Hertel responded, "We continue to be less restrictive with the orders."

After the meeting, Ananich, the top Democrat in the Senate, said he wanted to know if there was a disagreement over the rate at which the state has reopened the economy after a surge in coronavirus infections.

"It’s a legitimate question,” Ananich said. “If that was an issue, I think that’s a legitimate reason to separate ways with the director. I don’t have any inside knowledge about that."

Emails obtained by The News showed that Whitmer's staff decided against having Gordon appear at the Jan. 22 press conference where the epidemic order to lift the ban on indoor dining — signed by Gordon himself — was announced.

In an email to another staff member, Gordon described his feelings about potentially not having to appear at the event as "relief."

Thursday brought the second advice and consent hearing for Hertel as the GOP-controlled Michigan Senate considers whether to block her appointment to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. The meeting lasted longer than two hours.

Interest groups came out in support of Hertel's appointment at the meeting, including Beaumont Health, Henry Ford Health System, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and the Michigan Health & Hospital Association.

The Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association, which has criticized the Whitmer administration's restrictions on restaurants, is backing Hertel's appointment. Hertel has "proven willing to engage stakeholders on how to safely reopen," said Justin Winslow, the president and CEO of the association.

But 31 Republican lawmakers, including six senators, wrote a letter to Sen. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, chairman of the Advice and Consent Committee, opposing Hertel's appointment.

The letter referenced Feb. 25 comments from Hertel that epidemic orders from the health director could be in place for longer than a year if a crisis lasted longer than a year.

"It is deeply troubling that an unelected appointee could issue sweeping orders to close businesses and schools or limit gathering sizes — effectively exercising legislative powers unilaterally and indefinitely," the lawmakers' letter said.

Nesbitt said he is planning another meeting on Hertel's appointment.

The latest hearing came amid Republican criticism of separation agreements between Whitmer's administration and departing officials that required confidentiality.

In addition to Gordon, Steve Gray, the former director of the Unemployment Insurance Agency, received $85,872 as part of a settlement deal with the state when he resigned on Nov. 5.

Another official, Sarah Esty, who was a deputy director under Gordon, received four weeks of pay before resigning from her position in February. But her agreement didn't include a confidentiality provision.

Robert Gordon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, speaks during a press conference on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021.

Hertel said she had no involvement in Gordon's agreement. As for Esty, Hertel said she reorganized the department's administration after becoming director on Jan. 22. Hertel notified Esty that her position would be abolished and Esty was allowed to negotiate an agreement that included pay for vacation time she would have accrued if she had been a traditional civil service employee with the state.

"I thought that was a fair term," Hertel said.

Whitmer has repeatedly said she can't discuss the reasons for Gordon's departure.

"It’s simply that he tendered his resignation. And I accepted it," the governor said during a Tuesday press conference.

Gordon provided slightly more insight in a Tuesday social media post. 

"I’ve served in government a long time, and I believe that elected chief executives need to make final decisions about policy with confidential advice," Gordon said. "They also need to be comfortable with their agency heads."

During Thursday's hearing, Hertel vowed not to accept a separation agreement with a confidentiality provision.