City commissioners agreed not to sign the county’s signed memorandum of understanding that would institute the county commission as the interim governing body to oversee the Board of Health (BOH) during their work session Tuesday evening.
The county rejected the suggestion that the city previously proposed for there to be an ex-officio or non-voting city commissioner as part of the interim governing body, questioning the legality of the joint participation under HB 121.
Legislation passed during the last session, including House Bills 121 and 257, require an oversight governing body for the BOH that would have the power to amend decisions made by the BOH in a time of emergency.
The city had yet to sign the amended document and during this meeting, decided against doing so until a legal opinion could determine what the makeup of the “governing body” was supposed to be for a joint city and county health board.
HB 121 defines what the governing body should look like for a BOH run by a city or county, but leaves it up to interpretation for jointly run BOH.
(8) “Local governing body” or “governing body” means:
(a) the board of county commissioners that oversees a county local board of health;
(b) the elected governing body of a city that oversees a city local board of health; or
(c) the entity identified as the governing body as established in the bylaws, interlocal agreement, or memorandum of understanding creating a city-county local board of health or a local district board of health.
Members of both the city and county commissions met in July to discuss how this governing body would be made up. It was decided that there should be an interim governing body in the short term and then an established working group that would determine the makeup of the final oversight body.
The county sent a draft MOU to the city that designated the county commission would alone make up the interim governing body through Dec. 1. The city met in early August to review the draft MOU and sent it back with the addition of an ex-officio member to the interim body. The city did not counter much of the county’s outline of the interim group, largely citing expediency to facilitate compliance with HB 121, meeting City-County Health Officer Trisha Gardner’s request to have a body in place by the board’s Sept. 1 meeting and to put more energy into deciding the long-term decision.
City Commissioners expressed frustration at the county’s rejection of their ex-officio participation and fears that if they allow the county to proceed as the interim governing body that might set the stage for less city involvement in the final governing body. The city and county won’t be in compliance with the law under HB 121 until the governing body is decided upon.
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City Manager Greg Doyon said at the top of the meeting that the city does not have the capacity to create its own health department. The health department as it exists today is a joint operation between the city and county under the 1975 City-County Health Agreement.
During the meeting, Commissioner Tracy Houck asked City Attorney Sara Sexe whether the county would have the power to revoke the 1975 agreement.
“The language of the agreement doesn’t specifically say how that is accomplished,” Sexe said.
Commissioner Owen Robinson, who serves as the city representative on the BOH, said that the county really wants to negotiate a new agreement. Robinson suggested the city “turn the other cheek” as far as the interim governing body was concerned and come back to negotiations for what the official body makeup would be.
“I’ve kind of run out of cheeks,” Moe responded to Robinson. “Upper and lower.”
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Mayor Bob Kelly asked Robinson what the city would gain from turning over interim control to the county.
“The only thing I think we gain is becoming compliant with the law, we gain nothing else,” Robinson said.
“I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with asking for that guidance and not causing a secondary act that may be more harmful to our constituents, while we’re waiting for that answer, and I would like us to maybe not sign anything, and ask for legal opinion,” Commissioner Tracy Houck said.
It was agreed upon that the city wanted to get an official legal opinion before proceeding.
Sexe explained that the most expedient way for the commission to receive a judicial opinion was in Cascade County court.
“I would recommend that if you are looking for a determination that you would request a judicial determined through a declaratory judgment action,” Sexe said.
Doyon said the city would do more background and come back to the commission before taking any additional action.
Nicole Girten is a Government Watchdog Reporter at the Great Falls Tribune. You can email her at [email protected]. To support coverage of Great Falls and Cascade County subscribe to the Tribune by finding the “Subscribe” link at the top of the page.