City seeking legal opinion on joint operation of city-county health department

City Commissioners have asked staff to get a legal opinion regarding the governing body for the joint City-County Health Department.

During their Sept. 7 work session, commissioners said they didn’t want to sign the version of a temporary operating agreement as approved by the County Commission on Aug. 24.

The county selected itself as the governing body and views the new state law that precipitated the discussion as requiring the body to be an elected body, such as the county or city commission.

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City commissioners and staff have argued that the city and county could designate the Board of Health as the governing body, as it is currently.

The county adopted most of the city’s edits with the exception of adding a city commissioner as a non-voting member to join the three county commissioners as the temporary governing body while the city and county form a working group to determine the joint operating structure going forward.

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The temporary agreement approved by the county is not in force until agreed to by the city, as it’s a joint agreement, and as adopted by the county, it expires in December.

City Commissioner Mary Moe said during the Sept. 7 work session that the legislation included a provision to allow joint city-county health departments to designate their own governing bodies.

County officials have argued that it needs to be either the county or city commission, as an elected body, to serve as the governing body.

City, county discuss operation of joint health department

“That is not what the plain language of the bill says,” Moe said.

The city-county agreement governing the operation of the joint health department has been in place since 1975 and several provisions are no longer followed. The discussion has prompted a desire from both parties to review that agreement and bring it up to date.

Moe said that while they’re working out those finer details, they wanted to have a temporary governing body to handle any immediate issues, and that the city offered an alternative that gave the county decision making power but gave the city a seat at the table.

“That was offensive, that was a threat, that was violation of the law, I don’t think so. I think we need to seek a legal answer to that,” she said.

Commissioner Tracy Houck said that she felt the county was trying to force the city’s hand.

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Commissioners agreed that they wanted a legal opinion on the issue of whether the city and county could agree to designate the Board of Health or some other agreed upon group as the governing body of the joint health department.

Commissioner Rick Tryon asked if staff could seek an opinion from the Montana Attorney General’s Office.

The AG’s office has told The Electric that it has not issued a formal opinion on the law change that has created the discussion.

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City legal staff said they’d prefer to take the matter to District Court and seek a definitive answer from a judge in a declaratory judgment, which they believed would be more efficient since an AG’s opinion stands until it’s challenged in court.

Tryon asked city legal staff what was to stop the county from declaring themselves the governing body.

Jeff Hindoien, deputy city attorney, said that unless the parties agree on an governing body, there won’t be one.

“There isn’t a way that I can see under the statute that they can simply declare themselves the governing body,” Hindoien said.

City Manager Greg Doyon said staff would do more background work and come back to the commission before taking any official action to ensure they’re all on the same page.