Diagnosis Uncertain

Sign outside City County Building

Diagnosis Uncertain

County Commission takes more steps to curb the Board of Health, but seems unprepared to dissolve it.

by jesse fox mayshark • october 27, 2020

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A sign protesting the Knox County Board of Health propped against a window of the city county building.

In a meeting that included allegations from one public forum speaker that public mask wearing “has become a ritualistic form of submission to a trans-humanistic dystopia” and saw another attendee evicted from the balcony for shouting “The pandemic does not exist!,” Knox County Commission on Monday moved to slightly rein in the county Board of Health.

A new committee to advise the mayor and a requirement for public forum at Board of Health meetings.

But, to the displeasure of the crowd that once again filled the upper deck of the Main Assembly Room to protest COVID-19 mandates, there did not seem to be majority support for the idea of doing away with the board altogether.

“Do I want a Board of Health? Absolutely,” said Commissioner Carson Dailey during Monday night’s discussion. “Will I keep the Board of Health? Absolutely. Do I want to see a change in some way in some direction, that they’re not making laws? Yeah. Am I going to throw this baby out during this terrible time? I’m not going to do that.”

Dailey’s comments were similar to some made during last week’s work session by commissioners Terry Hill and Charles Busler, who both expressed reservations about the board’s power but didn’t seem inclined to dissolve it under the circumstances.

Commissioners Dasha Lundy and Courtney Durrett both expressed strong support for the Board of Health on Monday as well, and Commission Chair Larsen Jay has voted against all of the measures Commission has taken against the board in the past two months.

That makes at least six out of 11 commissioners who have shown reluctance to disband the board, which is mostly made up of medical professionals and has been guiding Knox County’s pandemic response since mid-June.

“It has done an incredible job trying to protect us, the general public, in this health crisis,” Durrett said.

A New Body

Commissioners did pass two measures introduced by Commissioner Kyle Ward. The first establishes a new advisory committee on health and economic issues, to be appointed by County Mayor Glenn Jacobs and confirmed by Commission.

Ward said that the volunteer committee could provide guidance if Commission does dissolve the Board of Health. But he insisted that wasn’t his only goal in proposing it.

“If there's a particular thing that the mayor wanted advice on or that we as Commission want advice on, we would request that they would show up at Commission or the mayor would request, ‘Hey, could you look into this topic or that topic and give a recommendation as a group,’” Ward said.

Among the topics mentioned as possible areas the committee could weigh in on besides the county’s pandemic response were homelessness and affordable housing.

“I don’t want to think very single-mindedly about what this could do,” Ward said, describing it as a “Swiss Army knife kind of committee.”

Jay repeated arguments he made at last week’s work session — that the county already has plenty of expertise readily available, from the Health Department to the Knoxville Chamber to the University of Tennessee, and that the new committee would be just another layer of government.

“Don’t be fooled,” Jay told his fellow commissioners. “This is a pretty clear goal to put something in place so you can say you have something. The next step is to dissolve the Board of Health.”

If the Board of Health were dissolved, which Commission could do by passing an ordinance, its health policy powers would revert to Dr. Martha Buchanan, the county’s health officer and head of the Health Department. Buchanan was in charge of leading the county’s COVID-19 response for the first three months of the pandemic, until the county Law Department decreed that the Board of Health had statutory authority.

The resolution establishing the new committee passed 8-2-1, with Jay and Durrett voting no and Hill abstaining. It specifically spells out the makeup of the body: two economists, one epidemiologist, one virologist, two Knox County business leaders, two Knox County medical professionals, two psychologists or social workers, and one county commissioner.

The group — formally known as the Knox County Committee on Health and Economic Well-Being — must convene at least once a year, but Ward’s idea is that it can be pressed into service as needed by either the mayor or Commission.

Ward initially said he hoped to have nominations for the positions from the county mayor by Commission’s Nov. 16 meeting. But Dwight Van de Vate, Jacobs’ interim chief of staff, told commissioners that was unlikely. 

“Looking at that list, at least six of those are going to be credentialed professionals who hold some form of licensure, likely from the state of Tennessee,” Van de Vate said. “So if you’re asking us to identify, recruit, vet and then recommend this group to Commission, realistically I do not see how we could do that by the November meeting.”

He said even December might be difficult, given the holidays, but that the mayor’s office would aim to get it done. (Of course, recruiting highly-paid professionals for volunteer service on a committee of uncertain and possibly wide-ranging responsibilities that will answer to both Commission and the mayor and will be subject to state open meetings laws could prove challenging in itself.)

The Public Voice

Ward also found support for his other initiative of the month, an ordinance to require the Board of Health to hold public forum sessions at all of its meetings. According to rules the board just adopted recently, it is holding public forum once a month (it is currently meeting biweekly), and allots only 30 minutes to the forum.

Buchanan, who is a member of the board, told commissioners that she would need to staff up to handle the logistics of a regular public forum. But she said the board would do what Commission required it to.

“The board wants to hear from the public,” she said. “We have been hearing from the public.”

The ordinance passed 8-3 on its first reading, with Jay, Durrett and Lundy voting against. Lundy, who has a doctorate in physical therapy, said the medical professionals on the board deserve some deference. It will be up for a second and final reading at Commission's meeting next month.

“I do believe that people should voice their opinion,” she said. “But on the flipside, everyone hasn’t been to school six, seven, eight, however many years.”

Lundy and Durrett, the two Democrats on Commission, were more outspoken Monday than they have been since joining the body last month. After making a case for the Board of Health’s legal legitimacy, noting it was established by both state and county law, Durrett added an impassioned plea for mutual respect.

She said she and her family have been directly affected by the pandemic — it has hurt her husband’s business, and it directly threatens her daughter, who was recently diagnosed with a serious autoimmune disease.

Durrett praised health and medical professionals for their responses to the pandemic. But, she said, “What is obviously lacking is that same commitment by the rest of us — the commitment to civic responsibility, the commitment to something bigger than ourselves, a commitment to each other as friends and neighbors.”

Dailey said that’s why he does not support disbanding the health board, out of concern for his constituents and his own loved ones.

“I’ve got seniors, I’ve got children, I’ve got my own family to think about,” he said. Addressing the anti-mask protesters in the balcony, he said, “You’re going to call us names, you’re going to call us everything in the book. But I’m looking out for the people that cannot look out for their selves.”

While Dailey was speaking, a man in the balcony shouted, “The pandemic does not exist!” Jay asked a security guard to escort the man out.

Some more mayhem at the end of the meeting suggested that the protesters aren’t going to let up easily. (Your faithful Compass scribe was home writing by this point, so what follows is Jay’s account of events, given after the meeting.)

Jay had announced a two-hour limit on public forum at the start of the meeting — an hour at the beginning and one at the end. But when he attempted to adjourn the meeting at the end of the second hour, angry crowd members who were still waiting to speak leaped to their feet and started yelling.

Thinking the meeting was over, Jay told Community Television to cut the video feed, which abruptly went dead. But County Law Director David Buuck advised Jay that there had not been a second to the motion tor adjournment, so the meeting remained in session and the majority of commissioners agreed to hear the rest of the speakers — most of whom had addressed Commission during prior meetings, several of them multiple times.

In the absence of the video feed, because CTV staff had gone home, the clerk kept the record of the remaining speakers. By the time the meeting ended, it was after midnight.