UPDATE, Dec. 4: Adds remarks from Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards and details about Monday's committee meeting.
As public health officials continue to deal with an exponential surge in COVID-19 cases, the Pierce County Council is preparing to vote on a proposal that would dissolve the public health partnership between the county and the City of Tacoma.
The surprise proposal blindsided some council members and health department leaders alike when it was introduced Tuesday.
The resolution, if approved in a final vote that’s scheduled for Dec. 15, would establish a new, county-only public health board. It also would ask County Executive Bruce Dammeier to propose legislative action to create an executive department tasked with managing administrative functions of the newly minted board. And it would sever ties with the City of Tacoma, which contributes $1.17 million to the $80 million biennial budget for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.
Similar to King County, Pierce County’s Board of Health includes representatives from the county council, the Tacoma City Council, and representatives from cities and towns. It also includes a representative from the Pierce County Medical Society.
In a statement released Wednesday, Director of Health Dr. Anthony Chen said he was “surprised” by the proposal. He stressed the health department must focus all its attention on responding to the pandemic, and efforts to “divide our attention from this critical public health response are an unfortunate distraction.”
“In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic our focus needs to remain on bringing the disease under control, and now, distributing (a) vaccine to the community,” he said in the statement. “As a small government agency, we are nimble and agile. We are a neutral convener, and, especially during COVID-19, we have worked quickly with many partners throughout the county to serve all residents of Pierce County.”
The agreement establishing the joint health department between Tacoma and Pierce County has existed since 1972, according to the release.
The lead sponsor for the ordinance seeking to terminate that decades-long partnership is County Councilwoman Pam Roach, who retires at the conclusion of her term at the end of this month. Councilman Doug Richardson, who is term-limited out of office at the end of the month, said in a study session earlier in the day Tuesday that he drafted the ordinance. But Roach insisted on taking over as lead sponsor, to “put that in her legacy” on her way out of office.
Both council members are Republicans, which have long held control of the council majority. But that will change when newly elected council members take office next month.
Comments at Tuesday's meeting were limited to getting the proposal on the council's calendar; discussion on the plan's merits will be taken up in the Rules Committee on Dec. 7.
The haste with which such a lofty proposal was introduced has drawn swift criticism from opposing council members, incoming council members, and the people who ultimately will be affected by the decision.
Councilman Derek Young, a Democrat, took to Twitter after Tuesday’s meeting to condemn the proposal and how it was introduced. He was among three council members who voted against the quick timeline for consideration during Tuesday’s meeting.
At this afternoon's Council meeting, Councilmembers Richardson and Roach introduced a bill to eliminate Pierce County's partnership with Tacoma for a joint city-county health department and replace it with a county-operated department.
— Derek Young (@DerekMYoung) December 2, 2020
“This is the first time the Council has discussed the possibility, and it appears to be news to the City of Tacoma as well,” Young tweeted. “A massive undertaking like this in the middle of a pandemic is irresponsible, especially without time to consider options.”
Young added that it would be more reasonable to direct staff to research other options that exist statewide, such as creation of a public health district, with input from those affected by the change.
Ryan Mello, a Democrat who was elected last month to Pierce County Council District 4, called the proposal “absolutely outrageous” in a tweet late Tuesday. He accused Republicans of politicizing “the very department charged with ensuring our public health” in the middle of a pandemic.
This is absolutely outrageous! In the middle of a pandemic the Republicans on the Pierce County Council and County Executive are going to politicize the very department charged with ensuring our public health! We must stop this terrible idea. https://t.co/WsR46dApyM
— Ryan Mello (@RyanMelloTacoma) December 2, 2020
During a news briefing Wednesday, state Secretary of Health Dr. John Wiesman acknowledged governments like Pierce County should be open to examining their governance structures. Still, he said, changes like those being proposed by the county shouldn’t be rushed.
“They have major consequences,” Wiesman said. “I just encourage careful thought and consideration to the potential benefits as well as unintended consequences.”
In a statement released Thursday, the Washington State Medical Association said it was "severely troubled" by the proposal.
“This action, contemplated during a public health state of emergency, is deeply concerning and part of a pattern we’ve seen across the state and the country, where public health professionals are becoming embroiled in differences of political opinion,” the statement reads. “Such actions distract public health officials from focusing their attention on the most significant health care crisis facing our communities.”
Richardson said there will be careful consideration, and he pushed back against criticism that the decision on the proposal was hasty. He told KNKX Public Radio that he plans to introduce an amendment to the ordinance next week, when it goes before the Rules Committee on Monday morning, that would guarantee a transition period of two years. The interlocal agreement between the city and the county would stay in effect until the end of 2022, he said.
Richardson added that county administration would handle the bulk of the transition planning through 2021, while health department officials continue their aggressive response to the pandemic.
“(This transition) will in no way impede on the COVID crisis,” Richardson said. “It’s incumbent on the executive branch to develop a transition plan to absorb the department.”
Richardson noted that the ongoing pandemic response has revealed areas of public health services that could be improved to better serve residents, such as streamlining mobile testing.
“We still have to have a view of what we look like when we come out of the other end of this,” Richardson told KNKX.
As for the rush to vote on eliminating the county-city partnership, Richardson says the due diligence will happen during that two-year transition. And when new council members come on board, if they support another vision for public health in Pierce County, there are options spelled out in the agreement that will still be in play to change course.
Richardson stressed this wasn’t a decision made lightly, or one that happened overnight — even though he acknowledged it hadn’t been discussed among the full council.
“We’ve sent $67 million in CARES Act funding to public health as part of this battle,” he said. “So we’re engaged. And I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to be confused that the county isn’t absolutely focused like a laser beam on this.”
Monday’s Pierce County Council Rules Committee meeting is scheduled for 10 a.m. That will be the first time council members discuss the merits of the proposal. Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards plans to speak at the meeting.
Woodards told KNKX in an interview Friday that she is “extremely disappointed” with the move.
“I thought we had a great partnership. We’ve been working very well together, and I’m disappointed that there was no conversation prior to — I found out about it the afternoon that they were dropping it,” Woodards said. “It’s the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. You would think they would have reached out to say, ‘We’re thinking about this; we’re going to do this.’ They don’t need to ask us for permission. I get that, but even just a heads up.”
Woodards says she hasn’t spoken directly with the plan's sponsors.
“We don’t know what the reasoning is for it, and we don’t completely understand all of the implications of it,” Woodards said. “What we’re asking is that they slow down and make this a community conversation.”