County reviewing court decision on health department oversight
County officials said during the Sept. 12 Board of Health meeting that a district court ruling was “problematic” in terms of the management of the joint City-County Health Department.
Carey Ann Haight, deputy county attorney, told the board she hadn’t yet briefed the County Commission on the judge’s Aug. 29 ruling.
Judge Elizabeth Best ruled that the state law does not prohibit a city commissioner from serving on the governing body of the City-County Health Department.
The ruling is from a lawsuit filed by the city in January regarding a dispute between the city and county on the makeup of the governing body of the health agency.
Haight said that Best’s “ruling is difficult for me to understand. I’m not tracking her logic.”
When the Legislature approved changes in 2021 to local health departments and health boards as a reaction to health protocols and restrictions implemented during the COVID pandemic, they created a requirement that health departments must have a designated “governing body,” instead of the Board of Health, which previously oversaw the health department and had the authority to implement health protocols during emergencies such as COVID.
The fundamental disagreement between the city and county is who can be on the governing body.
County Commissioner Joe Briggs said he believes the intent of the law was for the governing body to be an elected body and the county has argued that it should be the County Commission since they fund the majority of CCHD.
Haight said the governing body would be a body that would adjudicate decisions made by the health board and she didn’t understand how the body would adjudicate itself, under Best’s ruling.
She said that was “problematic.”
City Mayor Bob Kelly asked Briggs if the county would make an appointment to the health board to fill one of its appointments that has been vacant all year.
Briggs said he wasn’t sure since the commission hadn’t been briefed on the ruling yet and didn’t know whether they’d appeal the decision to the Montana Supreme Court.
Haight said she hoped to brief the commissioners in the next week or two.
The city has argued that the elected bodies could designate the health board as the governing body and essentially maintain the status quo, or that the governing body could be comprised of the county commissioners with a city commissioner serving as a voting member.
In her decision, Best ruled on Aug. 29 that the law requires a governing body, which is identified by the interlocal agreement between the county and city.
Under the law, Best wrote that a city commissioner cannot be prohibited from serving on the governing body.
She wrote that the existing interlocal agreement established the Board of Health as the governing body and that agreement required that the city mayor serve on the board.
The city and county have been discussing the need for a new management agreement since the existing one was approved in 1975 and hasn’t been updated since.
Over the last year, the city and county have worked on an interim agreement to create a governing body to meet the legislative requirement before addressing the larger disagreements between the governments on the management of the agency.
They have disagreed over whether that body can be the existing health board or whether it should be an elected body, such as the county commission.