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County's public health oversight committee gets its first look from Billings city officials

Billings Gazette - 12/5/2022

Dec. 5—Local government officials in Yellowstone County are figuring out how to play well with each other as the area's public health authority transitions from the local health board to a new conglomerate of city and county leaders.

Elected officials from Yellowstone County and the cities of Billings and Laurel are hammering out the final details of a memorandum of understanding that would dictate how they will handle public health emergencies and other public health duties moving forward.

It could get tricky.

The MOU creates a five-member group to hold public health authority — two county commissioners, two Billings City Council members and one Laurel City Council member — through which major decisions made by the county's health officer or health board would have to be approved.

In order to form a quorum, which would be required for the group to take action, the MOU requires at least one person be present from Yellowstone County, Billings and Laurel.

Council members in Billings immediately questioned that provision, worried about what would happen should the single representative from Laurel be unable to attend the meeting; the Laurel resident would have no backup and the group would be unable to take action.

Billings council members instead suggested the MOU's quorum requirement be a simple majority of three individuals regardless of what municipality they represent.

Council members also expressed some concern about Billings only having two members in the group, the same as the county.

"That's not a good representation of City Council," said council member Pam Purinton.

The City of Billings is home to 70% of the county's population, said council member Mike Boyett.

Council member Roy Neese countered that in an emergency it's advantageous to have a smaller group taking action. Rather, his issue was with the group's decision-making authority. If the group took action in a way that went against the majority of the city council, he wanted a way to remedy that decision.

He also expressed frustration that the state law that created this group was intended to give authority back to local communities and instead it simply created another layer of bureaucracy.

The county's public health district exists through an interlocal agreement between the county and its three commissioners, the 11-member Billings City Council, the nine-member Laurel City Council and the city of Broadview.

In the past, these four groups oversaw the public health office, although the authority to issue directives, mandates and public health orders belonged exclusively to the public health officer.

That changed in 2021 when the Montana Legislature passed House Bill 121, a direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the public health orders it spurred, including the closing of bars and restaurants, and mask mandates.

The new law transfers the public health officer's authority to this newly created group that will oversee the public health office, and the new MOU will direct how that will work.

Broadly, with the new law in place, the county's public officer must first get authorization from this local governing authority to issue public health orders, mandates and directives.

Toward the end of the discussion Monday night, council member Danny Choriki expressed concern that the new law takes public health authority away from medical experts and authorities and places it in the hands of politicians.


(c)2022 the Billings Gazette (Billings, Mont.)

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