BY MICHAEL WALTON
— Editor's note: Part of a series of stories about people, places and events that made news in the Grand Traverse region in 2012.
TRAVERSE CITY — A health administrator from the Upper Peninsula and the director of a nonprofit group in Midland replaced embattled managers at Grand Traverse County's Health Department and Road Commission in 2012.
Wendy Trute replaced Fred Keeslar as the county's health officer after Keeslar was fired in March.
Jim Cook took over as manager of the Road Commission after commissioners refused to extend then-Manager Mary Gillis' contract. Her contract expired in October.
Trute and Cook both make about $95,000 annually.
County officials originally said Keeslar retired from his role as health department director, but a copy of Keeslar's separation agreement indicated the county terminated him. County Finance Director Dean Bott cited an employee complaint filed in March — which the county later denied — that alleged Keeslar created a hostile work environment as the reason for the termination.
"They tried to leave some room to have the department head save face," County Administrator David Benda said. "I don't think anybody was trying to pull anything or do anything subversive."
Benda said Trute has worked well in her new role since she started in August. As evidence, Benda pointed to the health department's response to the tainted shipment of injectable steroids that led to a nationwide meningitis outbreak this fall.
Michigan saw 119 meningitis cases and seven deaths, including that of an elderly Charlevoix County woman.
Trute and her department worked with clinics that received bad injections, Munson Medical Center, and other agencies to screen at-risk patients and to communicate the risk of infection to the public.
"Wendy's been doing that job a long time, and it shows," Benda said.
Trute administered the Rock Island County, Ill. health department for roughly nine years before taking over in Grand Traverse County. The Sault Ste. Marie native said many of her relatives live in Traverse City. Her decision to accept the county's job offer was easy.
"I already knew I wanted to work here," Trute said. "It's the job I love, in the place I love, with the people I love."
Cook became manager of the Road Commission in November.
Road Commission Chairman Marc McKellar and board member Dave Taylor publicly stated in 2011 they wanted to fire Gillis, the commission's former manager. Three commissioners then gave her low scores on anonymous evaluations in April.
Commissioner Carl Brown joined McKellar and Taylor and voted not to renew Gillis' contract one month later.
McKellar would not comment on Gillis outside a Grand Traverse County Resource Management and Administration Committee meeting last week, but he spoke highly of Cook during a report to county commissioners.
"The staff, the board, the crew, we are all very pleased with what (Cook) has done," McKellar said.
Cook formerly worked as the executive director of Great Lakes Safety Training Center in Midland, a nonprofit that provides workplace and occupational safety training for contractors.
He said he wants to efficiently manage county roads by keeping them in good or fair condition.
"Then over two to three years we save up funding for major repairs on the poorest roads," Cook said.