By Marcy Stamper
The Okanogan County commissioners want a smaller Board of Health with different representation to oversee the county’s Public Health district. The move is partially an outcome of their recent concerns about the district’s cash flow and management.
The commissioners directed Perry Huston, their administrative officer and the county’s planning director, to draft a charter for a five-member Board of Health at their meeting on Monday (Sept. 14). The board would be composed of the three county commissioners, an elected city official, and a representative from the medical or environmental health field.
The current charter, which has been in effect for several decades, provides for six members — the commissioners and three elected city officials. An advisory committee appointed this summer recommended enlarging the board to seven — the commissioners, a city representative from each election district (not necessarily an elected official), and a professional from the medical field, according to committee member Andi Ervin. State law allows non-elected city representatives to serve as long as they do not outnumber elected officials.
All three commissioners said they favor a smaller board. Commissioner Ray Campbell said he had reviewed the committee’s recommendation and the overall structure of the board and had concerns about the way things had been done over the past few years. “Big boards have a lot of problems with decision-making,” he said.
“Having worked with five-member boards in the past, I see how effective five people can be,” said Commissioner Sheilah Kennedy.
Kennedy also proposed appointing working groups from different fields that come under public health, including public organizations and schools; septic and pump-system installers; professionals involved in permitting such as the Building Department, Public Works and Planning; public safety; and those who handle water issues.
Commissioner Jim DeTro also supported the advisory groups. “You need working committees to get things done,” he said.
The make-up of the Board of Health first came to the commissioners’ attention when board member Lee Webster stepped down as mayor of Brewster. The commissioners and staff consulted the charter and noted that another long-serving board member, Omak city administrator Ralph Malone, is not an elected official and was therefore not eligible to serve. That left only the three commissioners and Oroville City Council member Neysa Roley.
Kennedy said she also has concerns about the business side of the health district. “Severe discussions must take place on the budget — we have to figure out how to continue to survive,” she said.
The commissioners became concerned about finances at the health district when the district borrowed $100,000 from its reserve fund at the end of last year, which nearly emptied the fund.
The health district is funded by state and federal grants, license fees and the county, but it maintains a reserve fund to bridge gaps in cash flow, according to Ella Robbins, administrative coordinator for the district. They have since replenished more than half of the fund through staff furloughs.
Under the proposed charter, the city official would be selected by a countywide group of mayors. The commissioners would solicit recommendations for a representative from the medical or environmental health field and make an appointment. Members would serve four-year terms.
The proposal by the commissioners for a five-member board is similar to a charter they adopted in July but rescinded a week later after the management team of the health district pointed out that the topic had not been on the commissioners’ agenda and there had been no opportunity for input from Public Health staff or the public.
This week, the Board of Health charter was on the detailed agenda for the Planning Department study session for Sept. 14, but not specifically listed on the commissioners’ agenda. The Planning Department has a weekly study session with the commissioners.
None of the commissioners addressed the recommendation from the advisory committee during Monday’s discussion. After a question about the recommendation, Huston said it could be raised at the public hearing they have scheduled for next month.
New management structure?
Day-to-day operations at Public Health are run by a management team, with physician oversight from a health officer. As a health district, it is overseen by the Board of Health as opposed to being a county department.
Once they have adopted a new charter, the commissioners may take up the question of whether Public Health should continue to operate as a district — run by the Board of Health — or become a county department.
Several staff members at Public Health have said they favor the Board of Health arrangement because it creates a system of checks and balances through wider representation.
The commissioners have scheduled a public hearing on the proposed charter on Oct. 5, at 1:30 p.m. in their hearing room in Okanogan. People can also submit comments before the hearing to firstname.lastname@example.org.