County appeals court decision over health department governing body

Cascade County has appealed to the Montana Supreme Court over a decision from a district court judge on their dispute with the city on the makeup of the health department’s governing body.

District Court Judge Elizabeth Best issued an opinion on Aug. 29 that state law does not prohibit a city commissioner from serving on the governing body of the City-County Health Department.

County officials said in September that the decision was “problematic” and on Oct. 26, sent notice to the Montana Supreme Court of their appeal.

County reviewing court decision on health department oversight

Carey Ann Haight, deputy county attorney, said the process requires the District Court clerk’s office to send the files to the state court, which took until the first week of December.

She told the City-County Board of Health during their Dec. 7 meeting that briefs would be due to the court in January 2023.

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The appeal of Best’s 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.

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Haight said during the September health board meeting 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.

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The fundamental disagreement between the city and county is who can be on the governing body.

County Commissioner Joe Briggs said in September 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.

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Haight said in September 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.

County officials have said they won’t fill the county’s vacancy on the health board until the matter is settled.

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Under a joint city-county agreement, the board includes seven members, including the city mayor, a county commissioner, a local licensed dentist, a local licensed medical doctor, the Great Falls Public Schools superintendent, one citizen appointed by the City Commission and on appointed by the County Commission.

That agreement hasn’t been updated since it was approved in 1975.

Best 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.

County waiting to make health board appointment until discussions with city settled [2021]

During the Dec. 7 meeting, Matt Martin, a local dentist and health board chair, said he understood the county’s hesitation to fill their vacancy but that it would be nice to have that position filled since it would make it easier to predict quorums and have their regular meeting to conduct business.

The board canceled its November meeting due to lack of a quorum.

Martin said that staff was frustrated with the lack of quorum since they had items that needed board action.

The board typically meets the first Monday of the month and Martin asked board members to let staff know as soon as possible when they’d miss a meeting though they all know things come up last minute.

Martin asked County Commissioner Joe Briggs to reconsider filling their vacancy since it could take time for the courts to decide the appeal.

Briggs said no since the legal decision determines the county’s next steps.

Haight said the court sets it’s own schedule but she didn’t expect it to take more than a few months for it to rule on the county’s appeal.