Citizen Member Proposed for the Board of Health
County Commission this month will consider adding restaurateur Randy Burleson to the body charged with guiding the pandemic response.
by jesse fox mayshark • september 15, 2020
Members of the Knox County Board of Health during a virtual meeting on July 22.
The Knox County Board of Health has assumed unusual prominence over the past three months, as it has become the leading policy-maker for the county’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
A board that usually attracts little attention has been thrust into the public spotlight.
Made up largely of medical professionals along with Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs and a representative from Knox County Schools, it has enacted a countywide mandate to wear face masks inside public buildings and a 10 p.m. curfew for bars.
It has also faced complaints about those actions from some local residents, who have clamored for more of a public voice in the board’s decisions.
County Commission will consider taking a step in that direction this month with the proposed addition of a citizen representative to the board. At-large Commissioner Justin Biggs is bringing a resolution to create the seat and appoint local restaurateur Randy Burleson to fill it.
“There are people that this pandemic is affecting around the county in so many ways,” Biggs said Monday. “So I thought, why not look at somebody that has something in every (Commission) district, that can have an impact.”
Burleson owns the Aubrey’s chain of restaurants, as well as Fieldhouse Social, Sunspot, Bistro by the Tracks and Stefanos Pizza. In an interview Monday, he said Biggs had proposed his name to Jacobs, who called to ask if he would be willing to serve.
“I said I would be honored,” Burleson said.
He said he would see his role as providing pragmatic feedback to the board from a business owner’s perspective.
“I don’t want to be in a political hot seat, that’s for sure,” he said, “because I’ve got people of all beliefs and affiliations eating at our restaurants.”
In the Spotlight
The Board of Health has traditionally not attracted much public notice, meeting quarterly to review the operations of the county Health Department. But in June, the Knox County Law Department opined that under state law and the county Charter, the board should be in charge of any public health actions taken in response to the pandemic.
Since then, it has met weekly to hear updates on COVID-19 data and consider a range of possible measures.
The possibility of adding a citizen representative to the board was raised at last month’s County Commission meeting by Deputy Law Director David Sanders. A chorus of citizens angry about the mask mandate spoke at public forum that night and called for Commission to dismiss all members of the Board of Health except for Jacobs (who was the sole board member to vote against the mask mandate).
Sanders informed Commission that the only grounds for dismissing duly appointed members of the board would be "fraud, malfeasance or moral turpitude."
"Not only do I not think there is cause to remove the members of the Board of Health, there have not even been allegations stated sufficient to remove the members of the Board of Health," Sanders told commissioners.
But he noted that the state law that governs county health boards does allow for the appointment of a citizen representative. The law says that if a county creates a health board, it must include the county mayor, a schools representative, two physicians, a dentist, a pharmacist and a registered nurse. In addition, County Commission can appoint a veterinarian and a citizen member.
The Knox County Board of Health currently includes all of those except a citizen appointee. That prompted Biggs to start looking into adding a citizen position and thinking about who should fill it.
He said Burleson came to mind because he’s well-known and respected in the community. Biggs said that he had also been impressed during visits to Burleson’s restaurants with how diligently he was following Health Department pandemic guidelines about masks and distancing between tables.
“He’s doing everything, in my opinion, the right way,” Biggs said. “He is someone who can not only express the citizens’ views across Knox County, he can also be a trend-setter who can help us get out of this pandemic more timely.”
In an emailed statement, Jacobs supported the nomination of Burleson. The libertarian county mayor has been a consistent skeptic throughout the pandemic of measures that restrict personal behavior or the operations of businesses.
“I am very supportive of having a citizen on the Board of Health because that person will bring a different and much needed perspective to our discussions,” Jacobs said. “I am also supportive of that person being Randy Burleson. Randy is a successful businessman who employs a lot of people. And as a restaurant owner, he understands the impact that COVID-19 has on both his business and his people.”
A Long Six Months
Like most in the restaurant and hospitality industry, Burleson said he’s had a rocky time since the pandemic hit in mid-March. He remembers that the first weekend in March was an especially good one for business, with a sense that a busy spring was just around the corner.
“That weekend was wonderful,” he said. “By Sunday the 15th, the restaurants were dead.”
Burleson said he actually appreciated Gov. Bill Lee’s initial statewide shutdown, which lasted through April, because it removed any question about how businesses should operate.
Since reopening began in May, he said business has been variable — strongest in less populated areas like Cleveland, Tenn., where he has an Aubrey’s location.
“The further you get away from Knoxville, the better the restaurants are performing,” Burleson said.
In Knox County, he said business improved in June and then suffered in July, as COVID-19 numbers spiked and many people left town for summer getaways. August was better, he said, and September so far has been “all right.”
Many people are still doing only take-out dining, and some of those who dine in the restaurants are planning their visits for mid-afternoon hours when there are fewer customers. Overall, business is still down from a normal year.
Burleson said that if he is appointed to the board, he thinks he can provide perspective about the complex impacts of public health measures. He said much of the burden for compliance and enforcement is being put on service workers.
“Are you going to ask an 18-year-old to enforce these policies?” he said. “I know there’s good intent behind them, but at the same time, they’re not realistic.”
The result, he said, has been wide variation in how different businesses are interpreting and enforcing the rules.
But Burleson said he recognized and valued the expertise of the medical members of the board.
“I’m just here to provide our experiences,” he said. “Everybody is intelligent and logical, and we will work through it.”