County developing interview process for new health officer; legal dispute between city and county over health department management ongoing

Cascade County is in the process of hiring a new health officer to replace Trisha Gardner, who left in December for a job at Montana Department of  Public Health and Human Services.

Matt Martin, a local dentist, told the health board during their March 2 meeting that the county had received five applications for the position.

Health board selects officers; county receives one application for health officer so far

Martin is the health board chair and said that County Commissioner Joe Briggs had suggested an interview process.

He said that they’d use a screening tool that health board members would also use to score candidates and select those that would be asked to go through the interview process.

The county commission would interview the candidates using a set list of interview questions. Briggs said they would use the same questions for all candidates and not deviate from the list. He said that the health board members could give input on the questions and be able to listen to the interviews via Zoom.

County waiting to make health board appointment until discussions with city settled

“The county runs a very structured interview process,” Briggs told the health board during their March 2 meeting. “We ask questions off a list, we don’t freelance at all.”

Bowen Trystianson has been acting health officer at CCHD since Gardner’s December departure.

“I’m excited to get somebody hired,” Martin said. “I think it’s important for the agency to move forward.”

The governing body, which is the county commission plus one city commissioner, is the final decision maker on hiring the county health official.

Gardner leaving CCHD for DPHHS job

The makeup of the governing body is still a point of contention between the city and the county.

Last year, the Legislature made several changes impacting local health boards, one of which requiring a designated governing body over the health department and the health board. The makeup of that governing body has been a point of contention between the city and county for several months and is part of their ongoing discussions.

City considering temporary agreement for joint health department

The city and county have an agreement governing the operation of the Cascade County City-County Health Department that has not been modified since 1975.

This fall, the city and county approved a temporary agreement to make the county commission, with one city commissioner as a nonvoting member, the designated governing body.

That agreement is in place through June while the city and county continue work on a new agreement for operation of CCHD.

City, county nearing temporary agreement on governing body for joint health department

The city filed in District Court in January asking a judge to make the determination on the law whether the governing body can be the existing health board or if it must be an elected body such as the county commission.

The city argues that the law allows one or more members of the city commission to serve on the governing body with the same voting and participation rights as the county commissioner members.

In their response, the county denied that the law included that provision.

The county also argues that the disagreement between the city and the county is not subject to adjudication for a declaratory judgment.

Jeff Hindoien, the city attorney, told The Electric that now that the county has filed its response, the city will move forward with filing a motion asking the court to resolve the legal dispute and declare that the state law, HB121, “nor any other legal principle prevents the county from agreeing to the designation of a ‘governing body’ entity that includes one or more members of the city commission who would hold the same voting and participation rights that a member of the county commission would hold.”

Briggs said during a December meeting that the discussions between the county and city over the management of CCHD could potentially result in the city and county each having their own health departments and then each entity would need to define their own board membership requirements.

City, county continue debate over management of health department

The operation may continue as a joint agency, but there could be other changes to the membership requirement for the board, as the 1975 agreement requires a doctor, dentist and the superintendent of Great Falls Public Schools, as well a city and county commissioner, and one person appointed by the city and one appointed by the county.

Briggs said that could remain the same, but there could be changes to the appointment process. He said that the appointment of one city commissioner, one county commissioner and another person appointed by each body “is no longer inherent in the law.”

If the governing body for the local health board includes a county commissioner, it may not be appropriate to have one on the health board, Briggs said in December.