A 90-Day Reprieve

Commission 1-25-21

A 90-Day Reprieve

Knox County Commission postpones action on dissolving the Board of Health — but makes clear that it still intends to.

by jesse fox mayshark • january 26, 2021


commissioner Terry Hill makes her case for a postponement monday night.

Since Knox County Commissioner Courtney Durrett took office in September, she said Monday night, one issue has dominated Commission's meetings.

The board's power would revert to the county's health director — unless there is a change in state law.

“We’ve discussed limiting or dissolving the Board of Health, in some manner, four out of five months since I’ve been on this job,” Durrett told her Commission colleagues during their monthly meeting. “It has been a roller coaster, to say the least.”

Commissioner Terry Hill, who also joined the body in September, said she’s not sure that energy has been well spent.

“I think it's very important that we look at our Commission, collectively, and try to decide what or if we are even accomplishing anything in this, month after month after month,” she said.

Still, when it came down to it, both voted to extend the debate even further, postponing for three months the final reading of an ordinance that would dissolve the county’s Board of Health and reconstitute it as an advisory body. That delay passed by a 6-5 vote on the divided Commission, during a meeting that was held virtually because of the ongoing pandemic..

The most likely alternative to that delay was an immediate vote on the ordinance, which probably would have passed. Of the six commissioners who voted in December to abolish the board, none expressed any misgivings or second guesses Monday night. 

One of them was Commissioner Richie Beeler. He provided the sixth vote for the delay, but he made clear that he still intends to vote to dissolve the board whenever the second reading comes.

“My vote is not going to change on this,” Beeler said. “My vote is going to be what it’s going to be. It’s just a matter of when.”

The delay at least temporarily removes the issue from Commission’s front burner and allows commissioners to reconsider it at a time when COVID-19 case counts may be lower and local vaccination numbers will be higher.

The ordinance to dissolve the Board of Health was proposed in December by Commissioner Kyle Ward, yet another newcomer elected last year. Ward and Commissioner Justin Biggs have been the body’s most outspoken critics of the Board of Health, arguing that a group of appointed medical professionals should not have the power to enact legally binding regulations. 

Since last June, the Board of Health has passed a countywide mandate for face masks in public places, early closing hours for bars and restaurants, and limitations on large group gatherings. 

Ward said Monday night that dissolving the board would revert local public health authority to Dr. Martha Buchanan, the director of the Knox County Health Department. 

“I think the Health Department and Dr. Buchanan should be the ones in charge, especially now that we’re going into vaccination mode,” Ward said.

But Buchanan, who serves on the Board of Health herself and has strongly opposed the proposal to abolish it, reminded commissioners that she had supported all of the board’s public health orders.

“If I make recommendations that you don't like or you don't agree with, are you going to then vote to remove me or recommend that I be removed, or that whoever's in my position be removed?” Buchanan asked commissioners. “Because this seems to have come down to, ’We disagree with your recommendations, and we don't want you to make any more.’”

Law Director David Buuck interjected that neither County Commission nor County Mayor Glenn Jacobs could fire Buchanan, because her position as health director has to be approved by the state health commissioner.

“This body could never take Dr. Buchanan out of that position, and the mayor could not do it unilaterally, because of the way the statute’s written,” Buuck said.

A bill proposed by state Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Farragut, would limit local health departments’ power by giving public health authority during an emergency to county mayors rather than health directors. It has the support of Jacobs, who as mayor also serves on the Board of Health, but is opposed by state Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, and its prospects in the Legislature this year are unclear.

Ward had hinted earlier in the month that he might be open to delaying the final reading of his ordinance. But at Monday’s meeting, he said he would prefer to go ahead and adopt it. A motion by Commissioner Randy Smith to delay for 30 days did not receive a second. Durrett followed with a motion to postpone for 150 days, until June, but that failed on an 8-3 vote with only Commissioner Dasha Lundy and Commission Chair Larsen Jay joining her.

Hill then proposed the 90-day delay. She said it was long enough to see what comes out of the Legislature, which should wrap up most of its work before Commission’s April meeting. And, she said, “It will give our constituents some breathing room.”

Voting in favor of the 90-day proposal were Hill, Lundy, Durrett, Jay, Smith and Beeler. Opposed were Ward, Biggs, Commission Vice Chair John Schoonmaker, and commissioners Charles Busler and Carson Dailey. All five of them had voted with Beeler to approve the ordinance on first reading in December.

The delay pushes further consideration of the issue to Commission’s April 26 meeting. But unless any of those six commissioners have other thoughts in the interim, the county looks on track to be without a Board of Health by late spring.