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The state’s first GOP governor in 16 years has enlisted dozens of Montanans to help plan a COVID-19 response and pick new leadership for state agencies.

Gov.-elect Greg Gianforte, photographed at his Bozeman-area home in September 2020. Credit: Ray Lombardi, MTFP

HELENA — Gov.-elect Greg Gianforte has begun announcing advisory boards tasked with helping him craft a state COVID-19 response plan and identify candidates he can use to fulfill his campaign pledge to install new leadership atop state agencies.

As of Nov. 12, Gianforte’s transition effort had announced a COVID-19 task force and advisory bodies to develop recommendations for new directors at the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services and the Montana Department of Corrections.

COVID-19 task force 

Gianforte’s first advisory body was named Nov. 10 and directed to work with state and local health officials to develop recommendations for managing the COVID-19 crisis.

It comprises the following members:

  • Kurt G. Alme of Billings, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Montana
  • Don Beeman of Bozeman, a member of the Bozeman Health Board of Directors and former VP of U.S. Commercial Operations for Merck’s Vaccine Division
  • Father Patrick Beretta of Butte, a parish priest at St. Patrick and Immaculate Conception Churches in Butte, a chaplain at Montana Technological University and member of spiritual team at St. James Healthcare
  • Daniel Bierschwale of Big Sky, the executive director of Big Sky Resort Area District
  • Dax Cetraro of Helena, the owner of Village Inn Pizza, Grand Plaza Casino, and the Rialto Bar. He is a past president of the Montana Tavern Association.
  • Ravalli County Commissioner Greg Chilcott, of Hamilton
  • Heidi M. Duncan, MD, FAAFP, of Billings, the medical director at the Billings Clinic 
  • Wayne Leiker, of Great Falls, the VP of Refining Operations at Calumet Refinery
  • Montana Nonprofit Association Executive Director Liz Moore, of Helena
  • Whitehall School District Superintendent Hannah Nieskins
  • Sidney Mayor Rick Norby, the president of the Montana League of Cities and Towns
  • Montana Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Todd O’Hair, of Helena
  • Montana Air National Guard Adjutant General Matthew Quinn, of Helena, who currently heads Gov. Steve Bullock’s Coronavirus Task Force
  • Montana Parent Teachers Association President Sheryl Scheafer, of Billings
  • Poplar Schools Superintendent Dan Schmidt
  • Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter, of Great Falls
  • Butte-Silver Bow Public Health Officer Karen Sullivan, MA
  • Randy Swenson, of Billings, owner of TenderNest Assisted Living
  • Northern Rockies Medical Center CEO Cherie Taylor, of Cut Bank
  • Steve Wahrlich, of Billings, owner of Best Western Plus Clocktower Inn & Stella’s Kitchen and Bakery. Wahrlich is also a Montana Lodging and Hospitality Association board member
  • Fort Peck Tribal Executive Board member and nurse Kaci Wallette

“Montana faces a public health crisis and economic crisis as a result of COVID-19 — which I trust the people of Montana to take seriously,” Gianforte said in a statement. “It remains my top priority to work together to protect the most vulnerable among us, while also safely and fully opening back up our economy.”

Dept. of Public Health and Human Services transition advisors

A second advisory committee was announced Nov. 11, with 11 members directed to “identify and review” candidates to serve as the next DPHHS chief.

Lee Newspapers reported Nov. 7 that DPHHS Director Shelia Hogan had left her post at the head of the health department, the largest state agency, to take a division administrator-level job in the state Department of Administration. That story noted that Hogan’s new position is at a tier in the state bureaucracy typically filled through a competitive hiring process, as opposed to gubernatorial appointments that often change from administration to administration.

The members of Gianforte’s DPHHS advisory committee are:

  • Kayla Anderson, a licensed addiction counselor and owner of Prairie Hills Recovery Center in Sidney
  • Carter Barnhart, the chief experience officer at Newport Healthcare, a teen and young adult mental health treatment center
  • Marilyn Bartlett, CPA, a senior policy fellow with the National Academy of State Health Policy.
  • Beth Brenneman, JD, an attorney with Disability Rights Montana
  • Jim FitzGerald, MPA, MSW, CEO of Intermountain, a statewide behavioral health nonprofit serving children, youth and families
  • Jonathan Griffin, MD, MHA, the chief medical innovation officer at St. Peter’s Health and former president of the Montana Medical Association
  • Montana Health Care Association Executive Director Rose Hughes
  • Al Olszewski, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and state senator. Olszewski was one of Gianforte’s opponents in this year’s GOP primary for governor
  • Deer Lodge Medical Center CEO Tony Pfaff
  • Fergus County Commissioner Carl Seilstad, who is also the board chair for the South Central Montana Regional Mental Health Center
  • Jenna Taylor, the executive director of Child Bridge, a faith-based organization that supports foster and adoptive families

“We’re in the midst of a public health crisis. We face an epidemic of addiction that has destroyed communities, torn apart families, and left thousands of children in foster care,” Gianforte said in a statement. “We need someone leading DPHHS who can address these serious challenges, who will bring greater accountability and transparency to the agency, and who will help lead Montana’s comeback.” 

Dept. of Corrections transition advisors 

On Nov. 12, Gianforte’s transition effort announced a third transition team, this one tasked with identifying candidates to serve as the next director of the Montana Department of Corrections, which manages the state prison system. 

Its members are:

  • Flathead County Commissioner Randy Brodehl 
  • Custer County Sheriff Tony Harbaugh
  • Jackie Jones, JD, an attorney and former advocate with the Montana County Attorneys Association
  • Steve Lavin, a Montana Highway Patrol officer and former state lawmaker
  • Former Cascade County District Court Judge Greg Pinski, JD
  • Granite County Commissioner Bill Slaughter, a former director of the Department of Corrections and former sheriff of Gallatin County
  • Broadwater County Attorney Cory Swanson, JD
  • Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito, JD
  • Melissa Zeiler, a probation administrator at Sidney Probation and Parole Administration

“Unfortunately, well-documented incidents of gross mismanagement and a lack of transparency and accountability have prevented the Department of Corrections from serving the people of Montana well,” Gianforte said in a statement. “It’s time to change how the DOC does business, from changing the culture to reducing recidivism to improving reentry.”

Gianforte previously announced that former Montana House Speaker Mike Milborn, currently chief of staff for Attorney General Tim Fox, would chair his transition effort. The governor-elect’s transition effort is also soliciting resumes from Montanans interested in serving in his administration via a website, servemontana.com.

This story will be updated as the Gianforte transition effort announces further advisory committees.


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