County health officer seeks clarification of law that takes away his authority |
Keeping a boss happy is hard enough. Trying to do it with two dozen bosses might be impossible.
It’s a challenge Yellowstone County Public Health Officer John Felton spends time considering. The county public health unit exists through an interlocal agreement between the county and its three commissioners, the 11-member Billings City Council, the 9-member Laurel City Council, and the Town of Broadview.
In the past, these four groups oversaw the public health unit, although the power to issue public health directives, warrants and orders rested exclusively with the public health administrator.
Until this year.
This spring, the Montana legislature passed Bill 121, a direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the public health orders it sparked, including bar and restaurant closures and mask warrants. . The new law transfers authority from the public health officer to the governing body that oversees the public health office.
In other words, in order for the public health officer to issue public health orders, warrants and directives, they must first obtain permission from the local governing body.
Public health officials retain responsibility for ensuring the safety and health of their communities, but no longer have the power to do so, Felton said.
In most states, this governing body is either the council of county commissioners or the commissioners and members of the city council in places with a city-county arrangement.
In Yellowstone County, with its interlocal agreement, that means the public health unit is overseen by one county and three cities – more than two dozen people who theoretically would have to sign any kind of order from the public health unit. .
In practice, Felton wants to know what it will look like. Does authorization mean that a majority of the four governing bodies must sign an order, or a fair majority of the members that make up the four governing bodies?
Perhaps the four governing entities create a single, smaller group of its members who would exercise that authority.
“The question is, what is this governing body that House Bill 121 brings into play,” Felton said.
The question is also on the minds of Commissioners, said Commissioner Don Jones. As commissioner, Jones also sits on the public health board.
Recently, the county announced plans to reopen the interlocal agreement in order to define what that authorization will look like and how the interlocal agreement should be structured given the changes made by HB121.
“We have to understand it,” he said. “It’s good for all of us to figure out how to make this thing work.”
Part of the problem is how the law is drafted.
Generally, pandemics and the interim orders associated with them are rare. The day-to-day work of public health is to ensure that catering establishments are clean, that body art salons do not convey or spread disease, and that septic systems are functioning properly and cleanly.
Felton is concerned that the language of HB121 in its effort to limit the emergency authority of the public health unit inadvertently removes the power of the public health unit to perform its normal day-to-day functions, placing it in the hands of its governing bodies. .
He described the effect of the new law as “crushing a gnat with a hammer”.
His concern is that an order to close a restaurant actively spreading a disease could get stuck in the bureaucracy of the four governing bodies.
“You have to take care of public health first,” he said.
If a restaurant or tattoo parlor racked up enough infractions or did something serious enough to warrant closing, Felton said he would not hesitate to do so and then let the courts find out.
“I and the board of health will always by default ensure the safety of the public,” he said.
In the meantime, the county is feeling the pressure to redefine the interlocal agreement. County attorneys are currently working to meet with City of Billings attorneys to begin the process.
“We just have to understand,” Jones said.