At least two Yakima City Council members expressed concerns this week about Mayor Patricia Byers’ role in recent actions by the Board of Health.
Meanwhile, email records shed light on the involvement of Byers and three county commissioners in a Yakima Health District decision to cancel a high school COVID-19 vaccination contest.
Byers is one of seven members of the Yakima Health District Health Board. While the health district is a separate government entity, the board has generated controversy over recent pandemic mask rules for kids and high school COVID-19 vaccination promotion efforts.
At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, member Brad Hill referenced Byers’ part in those decisions and said he’s concerned about the board’s upcoming vote on a new health officer.
The health board is preparing to select a new health officer from three candidates: longtime Yakima physician Dr. Neil Barg; Dr. Sara Cate, a primary care physician with Community Health of Central Washington; and Yakima neurosurgeon Dr. Dave Atteberry, also a member of the health board.
Hill said he tries to represent the will of the council when he serves on the Yakima Valley Conference of Governments and the Clean Air Agency.
“I think we should always be cognizant when we are in fact representing the council that we are bringing forth the majority opinion, which is not particularly the case here,” he said.
Council member Kay Funk, a retired physician who used to serve on the health board, said Byers’ position on the health board isn’t specifically reserved for someone from the Yakima council.
“The mayor has that authority, that appointment to the board on her own, as I did previously … so she’s not specifically beholden to us,” Funk said.
Byers agreed. Responding to a later question from the Yakima Herald-Republic, she said her position on the health board is one of two elected official spots set aside to represent cities and towns within Yakima County. The health board appoints members who meet criteria spelled out in county and state codes.
“Under the Governing law, as a city’s representative, I am appointed to represent the collective interests of all cities in the County (italics added),” she said by email.
During the meeting, Byers said she wants to hear from council members. Byers said council members can always share their opinions with her, and Hill had done so.
“I’m fully open to that,” she said. “I’m hearing from lots of people in the community. I’m mostly hearing from people in the medical community, or people who have been patients of different doctors who have applied.”
Hill said in a later interview he understands the role Byers plays, but wanted her to know her peers on the council are concerned about the health officer selection.
“We want to make sure the most qualified person is selected and not the person most conducive to going with the movers and shakers who are already there,” he said.
Health board involvement
The health board voted 4-3 last week to recommend to Interim Health Officer Dr. Larry Jecha that masks not be worn by children, a change which he said he would not implement given state rules and federal guidance. Byers voted to recommend masks not be worn by children.
Funk said she regarded the health board’s vote on masks as interfering with Jecha’s ability to practice medicine, which she said is illegal.
Byers said the board didn’t direct Jecha to do anything.
“We were careful not to do that,” she said. “We made a recommendation he would consider it knowing we didn’t have the authority to do that because it would interfere.”
Funk said the recommendation crossed a line, given the chain of supervision.
Emails on high school contest
The health board also played a role in the health district’s decision to cancel a vaccine competition among high schools in the Valley. Hill said he didn’t understand the process that was followed or how the health board gave direction to the district without a formal motion and public vote.
“It’s surprising to me that it was dropped so quickly,” he said in an interview.
After the health district announced the contest, several health board members emailed staff with concerns, according to documents the Yakima Herald-Republic obtained through a public records request.
Amanda McKinney, a county commissioner and health board member, criticized the competition in an email to health district staff on May 18. She accused the health district of overreaching by developing an initiative for the schools without health board approval.
“The contents of this message are quite alarming. If I am reading this correctly, you have proactively created a campaign within the schools using peer pressure to influence under-age children without the benefit of their adult guardian present. The only youth who should be participating in the campaign or who should be presented with this information are those 18 and older,” McKinney said in her email.
Byers sent an email on May 19 to Health District Director Andre Fresco, copied to McKinney, and Commissioners Ron Anderson and LaDon Linde, who also sit on the health board. Byers asked the district to hold off on the student vaccination challenge pending review by the district’s full health board.
Byers didn’t agree with promoting the vaccine directly to youth, saying the challenge would unfairly subject students to peer pressure.
“The messaging should not be why a student chose to get a vaccine, but on why they and their parents decided they could get the vaccine,” Byers said her email.
Health board members Linde and Anderson sent emails concurring with Byers’ request. Anderson’s email was copied to the mayor and other commissioners, along with health district staff. Linde’s email was copied to Byers, health district and county staff.
Linde said while he supports vaccination efforts, the message should be directed to parents.
An email exchange can constitute a meeting under the state’s Open Public Meetings Act. An active exchange of information among board members by email can violate the act, according to the Municipal Research and Services Center. A passive receipt of information is not a violation.
The health district canceled the high school competition on May 21.