A proposed ordinance that would have terminated the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department and created a new county-run health department failed to pass late Tuesday night after hours of testimony and a tie vote.
The split vote happened six hours into the meeting after Pierce County Council members listened to hours of public comment, almost all against the proposal.
The vote was 3-3 with one council member abstaining. Democratic Councilmembers Marty Campbell and Derek Young were joined in the “no” vote by Republican Councilmember Pam Roach, who sponsored the measure, then changed her mind.
Councilmember Connie Ladenburg left the meeting before any action was taken because, the Democrat said, she didn’t want to be part of any action that put the county in legal jeopardy.
Gov. Jay Inslee had issued a proclamation Monday pausing the termination of agreements creating joint city-county health departments and health districts during the coronavirus pandemic.
The proclamation came a day before the Pierce County Council voted on an ordinance to end the interlocal agreement between the city of Tacoma and the county creating the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.
The 3 p.m. meeting started 20 minutes late after the council received an amendment to the ordinance just before the meeting began. The amendment would allow the county executive, Bruce Dammeier, to forward a notice to terminate the interlocal agreement between Tacoma and the county after the COVID-19 state of emergency has ended.
Young and Campbell both spoke against the amendment, saying that it appeared to be an attempt to get around Inslee’s proclamation. Both Young and Campbell voted against the amendment and the ordinance.
Campbell said it isn’t clear what the problem is that needs to be fixed by making the health department part of county government, and it could possibly open the county and the health department up to a solution nobody will be pleased with.
“With this amendment and this feeble attempt to bypass around state law, we are committing ourselves to solutions that we want,” he said.
Roach said in a statement released after Inslee’s proclamation that she originally was going to vote against the ordinance because there wasn’t enough time for public input, but that Inslee’s action has changed her mind.
“It is now a battle between local elected officials and our edict-by-the-day-governor,” she said.
At some point, Roach changed her mind. She didn’t say how she was going to vote during her comments, unlike her colleagues. When Roach voted against the ordinance, other council members could be heard saying, “What?” and demanding another vote.
Like the public comment period during the Rules Committee hearing last week, caller after caller during the virtual council meeting blasted the proposal. Five of the nearly 85 people who spoke supported the ordinance.
Inslee said the proclamation was needed to ensure the work being done by health districts across the state at a critical juncture during the pandemic continued without worry about a department’s stability; he spoke Monday at a news briefing where he introduced the proclamation.
“It removes politics from public health, which at this moment would be a reckless and dangerous course because we need these public health folks totally focused on vaccine delivery efforts to prevent the spread of this pandemic,” Inslee said. “They cannot be frustrated by this work and frustrated by extraneous debates.”
One of the concerns about the Pierce County ordinance was it injected politics into the health department at a time its leadership and employees should be dealing with the pandemic. Now the chairman of the state Republican Party is accusing Inslee of playing politics with public health.
“Power-drunk Jay Inslee loves to operate outside the scope of his authority as Governor of Washington state, but this latest ridiculous, purely political move is absurd, even for Inslee,” Caleb Heimlich said in a statement.
Health boards have significant influence over a health district as they set policy and approve budgets. Public health actions, like septic permitting, restaurant inspections and quarantine requirement, are authorized under the medical license of the health officer.
The proposed Pierce County ordinance was as much of a surprise to the health department’s leadership as it was to the Democrats on the County Council when it was introduced before the Dec. 1 council meeting.
The ordinance was quickly moved to the Rules Committee’s Dec. 7 meeting, where it was advanced to the full council with a “do-pass” recommendation that broke along party lines: The two Republicans on the committee voted to pass and the lone Democrat voted no.
Roach said she didn’t come up with the ordinance and last week said she wasn’t sure who wrote it, but she became the sponsor after Council Chair Doug Richardson, a Republican, shared it with the council.
Young told The Seattle Times last week he believed the ordinance came from the county’s Republican executive in an effort to make the health department a county entity before the County Council flips control next year from Republican to Democratic.
The Pierce County Council’s move on the 50-year-old city-county health department comes at a time when politics and public health are colliding in public displays across the nation.
Spokane’s health officer was fired in November, an action many in the medical community attributed to criticism from the business community over the health district’s coronavirus response.
And in Idaho, a virtual meeting of a health board was canceled after it began because maskless protesters opposed to proposed public health orders to mitigate the spread of the virus gathered outside the health department’s building and the homes of some board members.