Bill to remove county commissioners from local boards of health not popular with commissioners
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The Routt County Board of Commissioners and Board of Health have the same three members, but a bill soon to be introduced in the Colorado Legislature seeks to change that.
Rep. Cathy Kipp, a Democrat from Fort Collins, plans to introduce a bill she said will take politics out of county boards of health by removing commissioners from those boards. A 2008 law required counties to have an independent board of health but left a carve-out for commissioners from counties with populations less than 100,000 to double as the board of health.
The bill has gotten a lot of pushback from county commissioners who believe they have been doing a good job of keeping politics out of discussions about public health orders, but Kipp said it would benefit them to have an independent board of health.
“Making those decisions, as we have seen this past year, have ended up getting fairly politically charged,” Kipp said.
Currently, 26 of the state’s 64 counties operate their board of health like Routt County does. Kipp’s bill would require commissioners to appoint people to the local board of health and give them the right to remove those people from the board if they had a documented reason to do so.
Kipp said 19 different public health officials in Colorado have either left or been forced out of their jobs by politicians during the pandemic. To her, setting up an independent board would lead to better public health decisions and remove politics from the equation.
“When public health departments are independently led and independently directed by policy boards rather than by political boards, they do provide a higher level of public health to the citizens,” said Dr. Mark Johnson, who had served as Jefferson County executive director of public health for 30 years.
Opponents of the bill argue smaller, rural counties — where commissioners are most often serving as the board of health — will have a harder time finding people qualified and willing to serve on such a board. Routt County Commissioner Tim Corrigan predicted it would be a controversial bill and said he does not support it.
“It’s really problematic to have an independent board of health making public health decisions that have financial consequences,” Corrigan said.
Examples of those expenses could come in many forms, such as public health nurses, contact tracers, vaccinations and the COVID-19 ambassadors the county has hired, he said.
“All of those things cost quite a bit of money, and it seems problematic to a lot of us that you would have a board of health making those kinds of decisions that have budgetary impacts that only the county commissioners can really implement,” Corrigan said.
The board also makes public health decisions that have real impacts on businesses and the local economy, Corrigan said, and he feels the commissioners are better equipped to make those decisions.
“The fear from a lot of commissioners is that an independent board of health could move unilaterally to shut down local economies based upon purely public health,” Corrigan said.
An example of this, Corrigan said, happened in Pitkin County when its Board of Health decided to move them into level red restrictions in January. Corrigan said he ultimately agrees with the decision that was made in Pitkin County, but at the time, it got a lot of criticism because the board making the decision is not accountable to the public like the commissioners are.
Supporters of the bill say that counties and citizens would benefit from having an independent board of health. Research from Dr. Glen Mays with the Colorado School of Public Health found that areas with an independent board of health had performance levels 10% higher than those that did not when it came to meeting national public health guidelines.
“You would have people who are more dedicated, who had more expertise in public health and had the time to focus on the issue,” Johnson said. “County commissioners are already pulled in so many different directions.”
Corrigan said he believes commissioners are in a better position to balance competing interests than appointed officials, and they are accountable to the voters.
Lee Thielen, a former associate director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for 16 years who has had a 40-year career in public health, said commissioners are worried about losing some of their power and missing the benefits of having an independent board of health.
“I have some sympathy for the county commissioners that feel they have been doing a good job,” Thielen said. “What they are missing is that an independent board of health is an asset to the community, it is a gift to their community.”
Kipp said she had a meeting with county commissioners where they shared their issues with the bill, and after strong pushback that she said she was not expecting, she changed the bill to allow one commissioner to serve on the board of health.
But that concession did not garner any additional support from commissioners, so Kipp said she decided take it back out before introducing the bill in the legislature. She said she is open to discussion about changes to the bill, and the bill title has specifically been written loosely to allow changes.
“I don’t have anything against good county commissioners doing good work,” Thielen said. “They just need to understand that their county could be even better if they thought this through.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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