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Tacoma mayor, public weigh in on controversial plan to dissolve public health partnership

A sign directs vehicles toward a drive-up testing site at the Tacoma Dome in March 2020. It was one of the test sites hosted by the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department early in the pandemic.
Ted S. Warren
The Associated Press (file)
A sign directs vehicles toward a drive-up testing site at the Tacoma Dome in March 2020. It was one of the test sites hosted by the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department early in the pandemic.

Pierce County residents had their first opportunity to respond to a controversial proposal that would terminate a public health partnership between the county and the City of Tacoma.
And their collective response during Monday’s Pierce County Council committee meeting was overwhelming: many called the effort “reckless” and “dangerous” as the county faces a surge of COVID-19 cases.

Among the speakers were several medical professionals, including Dr. Stephen Cook. The family physician previously served on the Tacoma-Pierce County Board of Health. Cook was at St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma doing rounds with patients — including COVID-positive patients — the first time he heard about last week’s surprise proposal.

“Not a single other doctor in the lounge could understand why in the world this proposition was put forward at this time and what benefit it would serve to the community and the health of our community,” he said during public comment Monday.

Cook said the “hurry to push” this proposal through in the next two weeks, during a pandemic, is “astonishing.”

Many of the speakers echoed those concerns, particularly how the timing would affect the ongoing response to the pandemic by health department staff.

Abigail Zulock, staff representative for the union that represents 125 health department employees, said this plan is not how you thank the people who are working hard during a historic public health crisis.

“The instability a decision like this would create for these workers in the middle of a pandemic is demoralizing and disrespectful,” Zulock said. “An attempt to defund this agency by removing Tacoma’s contributions to this service is a disgraceful move that will harm not only your constituents, but the workers who serve those constituents.”

Those contributions amount to more than $1 million every biennium. The health department’s biennial budget totals $80 million.

Monday also was the first opportunity Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards had to speak about the proposal on behalf of the city. In her remarks, Woodards expressed “deep disappointment and surprise” that Tacoma leaders weren’t included in discussions before the measure was introduced on such a short timeline. She said after 50 years of a successful partnership, there should be more time to consider changes.

“And if it is really as good for the citizenry as you say it is, then let’s make that argument,” Woodards said. “Let’s make that case.”

The proposal was introduced last week — to the surprise of many city, county and health department leaders — by outgoing Republicans on the Pierce County Council. Some critics have called the move a hasty "power grab" by lame-duck politicians. The council will see a shift in majority when new Democratic members are sworn in next month. But sponsors have said this is a move they've been talking about making for some time. 

Councilwoman Pam Roach, a Republican who is retiring, is the primary sponsor. She says partisan politics has nothing to do with the decision to bring this forward for a vote by the end of the year.

“My reason for support has to do with governance,” said Roach, who is not a member of the Rules Committee but joined Monday’s meeting for discussion. “It has to do with allowing the people to have a greater voice in their government.” 

Some of Roach’s colleagues say the council can grant residents a stronger voice in the fate of their health department right now, by slowing down the vote and creating more opportunities for community engagement before a decision is made.

Roughly 90 people called into Monday’s meeting, and comment was limited by Council Chair Doug Richardson, who originally drafted the proposal in question.

Councilman Derek Young, a Democrat who also serves on the health department board, advocated to extend public comment, to give more people the opportunity to respond to the proposal. His request was ultimately voted down by the committee.

“There’s very little time for folks to speak up on this, and it only adds to the perception that there’s something improper going on here,” Young said.

A final vote on the proposal is scheduled for Dec. 15. If it passes, the city-county agreement would end Dec. 31, 2021. The incoming majority Democratic council could repeal or extend the ordinance until that date, as a result of an amendment passed by committee members Monday.

Richardson, who authored the amendment, stressed in an earlier interview with KNKX Public Radio that there would be plenty of time for due process following the December vote. But critics say that should come before any decisions are made, not after.

Kari Plog is a former KNKX reporter who covered the people and systems in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties, with an emphasis on police accountability.