County Council vote on health department yields surprise ending

M. Night Shyamalan, a director whose films tend to have twist endings, has nothing on the Pierce County Council.

A tense political standoff between the council and Gov. Jay Inslee’s office on a Dec. 15 vote to split up the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department came to an unexpected conclusion when the bill failed after Councilmember Pam Roach, who sponsored the ordinance, voted against it, resulting in a 3-3 tie.

Roach’s “no” vote — which caught other members of the council off guard — came after four hours of public comment overwhelmingly in opposition to the council disbanding the joint city-county health agency. Earlier last week, Inslee signed a proclamation pausing efforts to terminate a health district or a city-county health department during a public health emergency — in this case, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The order included criminal penalties for counties that don’t abide.

The proclamation loomed large over the council meeting from the very beginning, with members immediately going into executive session to receive legal advice from county attorneys.

After the executive session, the council amended Proposal No. 2020-136 to reorganize the health department after the coronavirus crisis passes.

That didn’t sit well with the council’s three Democratic members. Councilmember Marty Campbell said the amendment still violated the governor’s proclamation. Councilmember Derek Young said the amended version of the ordinance would lead to a long legal battle.

Earlier in the meeting, Councilmember Connie Ladenburg read the governor’s order to her colleagues before excusing herself, saying she would not take part in voting against an ordinance Inslee wanted to pause.

“I believe it places the county at risk of criminal action against us,” Ladenburg said.

Republican Roach’s change of heart and decision to vote with Campbell and Young to sink the effort to create a county-run health department at the expense of the current department was seemingly motivated by the negative public response to the ordinance.

“One man, one vote is very important to me,” Roach said. “Open government is very important to me.”

Republican Councilmembers Jim McCune, Dave Morell and Chair Doug Richardson voted to approve the proposal.

Republicans on the council contend the move would mean better representation in the form of a county health department rather than a board of health comprised of community partners.

“I think this proposal adds accountability with a new future health department — one that allows proper representation,” Morell said.

Young and Campbell indicated their willingness to work with Republicans for more direct representation in public health but said now is the not the time to make major changes as proposed in the ordinance.

“We need to take a step back from the chaos,” Campbell said.

The attempt to dissolve the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department generated accusations of a political power play because it came in the final days before a Democratic majority replaces the current Republican majority on the Pierce County Council. Last month, voters flipped the legislative body Democrat for the first time in 17 years.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment