Commission Accelerates Plan to Dissolve Health Board

County Commission

Commission Accelerates Plan to Dissolve Health Board

A late addition to the agenda means the final vote on removing the body's authority will come next week.

by jesse fox mayshark • March 23, 2021

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county commissioners at Monday's work session.

It is possible that the Knox County Board of Health will cease to exist as a decision-making body before it gets another chance to meet.

The move comes as the state Legislature is debating a similar measure.
Knox County Commission voted at the tail end of its work session Monday night to add an ordinance dissolving the board to the agenda of its regular monthly meeting on March 29. The ordinance passed on first reading in December, but in January commissioners voted to defer the second and final reading until their April 26 meeting.

Commissioner Richie Beeler moved at the end of Monday’s work session to accelerate that vote by a month. He cited comments made earlier in the meeting by Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs as well as an email from state Sen. Richard Briggs, who has opposed past efforts to  dismantle local health authorities but appeared to endorse the move in a message to a constituent.

“This body needs to act if it feels like it needs to act,” said Beeler, who voted in favor of the ordinance on first reading and has made clear he will vote to approve it on second reading as well.

The ordinance originally proposed by Commissioner Kyle Ward would abolish the Board of Health, which has been setting public health regulations for the COVID-19 pandemic since last June. It would reconstitute the board as an advisory body with no policy-making powers.

The move by Commission to bring the ordinance to a final vote comes as a somewhat similar state law proposed by Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Farragut, is working its way through the Legislature. As currently written, Zachary’s bill would make county health boards strictly advisory during public health emergencies.

Commission Chair Larsen Jay, who voted against Ward’s ordinance in December, asked Beeler if it made sense to act before commissioners know the result of Zachary’s legislation.

“Why rush this ahead a month when there's still stuff being done on a state level that may fundamentally change or alter what it is we're voting on?” Jay asked.

“The state will do whatever the state does,” Beeler said. “And whatever the state does will certainly supersede us if it contradicts what we do tonight or next week. But I see no reason not to follow through.”

If Commission approves Ward’s ordinance on second reading — which seems likely — anything the state does regarding boards of health may not matter to Knox County, since it will no longer have a health board as defined by state law. 

Limiting Powers

If the board is dissolved, under state law its authority to set public health policy would fall to the county health officer, Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the county Health Department. Buchanan is a member of the Board of Health and has voted in favor of all of its pandemic regulations. She has told commissioners that if they remove the board’s power, they shouldn’t expect any lessening of regulations by her. 

But several commissioners have said they would be more comfortable with Buchanan setting policy than the health board, a volunteer body largely made up of local medical professionals.

The board has recently relaxed some of the restrictions enacted last year as local COVID-19 numbers surged to among the highest in the country. At its March 17 meeting, the board moved bar and restaurant closing times to 1 a.m. from midnight and allowed a limit on outdoor gathering size to expire. It is not scheduled to meet again until mid-April.

Commissioners voted unanimously Monday to add the ordinance to next week’s agenda. That does not necessarily mean all of them will vote for it — it passed on a narrow 6-4-1 tally in December. But none of the six who supported it then has shown any sign of second thoughts, which means there is most likely still a majority to pass it on final reading.

Earlier in the meeting, Jacobs addressed Commission with some concerns about emergency powers. He has been a consistent critic of the powers delegated to the Board of Health, saying that he thinks decisions on issues like business regulations and mask mandates should be made by elected rather than appointed officials.

“I would be in favor of moving the Board of Health to an advisory role,” Jacobs said. “But that doesn’t completely remove the problem.”

He said that even if the health board is made an advisory body, Commission should place some limits on the ability of the county mayor to declare a state of emergency and potentially abuse the same powers.

“I would strongly encourage this body to put severe limits on the duration that a public health emergency can be called for by the mayor,” Jacobs said.

He suggested that after some initial period for a declaration of emergency, extensions could be allowed only by vote of Commission. The state Legislature has discussed taking similar action to limit the governor’s emergency powers.

Briggs’ Email

A few commissioners Monday night also mentioned the email from Briggs, which was circulated to Commission by a local resident, David Roy, who had written Briggs to complain about the Board of Health. Briggs, a retired surgeon who has generally been on the side of public health authorities during the pandemic, sent back an email that suggested decisions should be made at the local level and not via state law.

“[W]hy doesn’t the Knox County Commission just replace the Health Board members,” Briggs wrote. “They could do it by Friday. Or at Monday’s meeting just eliminate the board entirely. Elimination of the Board has already passed on first reading. This should have been done months ago and we would not have to deal with also giving power to the radical Democratic mayors in Nashville and Memphis.”

Roy forwarded the email to county commissioners.

In a text message to Compass on Monday, Briggs said that what he meant was that such decisions should be local, not that he thought that’s what Commission should do.

“I think it is too soon in the middle of a pandemic to be making decisions such as this,” Briggs said. “Both last summer and now, I favor a committee this summer of public health profession(al)s, business leaders, political leaders, and school officials to determine a decision process and accountability for the NEXT pandemic, which could be much worse than COVID.”

Too soon or not, commissioners look set to render their decision next Monday.