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FILE — The Yakima County Health District Friday, Oct. 11, 2019, at 1210 Ahtanum Ridge Drive in Union Gap, Wash.

New rules governing Yakima County’s Board of Health could disqualify two longtime board members from reappointment while affording Yakima County commissioners more power over decisions.

Longtime board member Barbara Harrer and chairwoman Gail Weaver — whose terms have expired — are now subject to term limits and not eligible to serve under the new rules approved by Yakima County commissioners on Jan. 5.

Three terms have expired on the health board and a committee is expected to interview candidates sometime this month.

The health board is made up of three county commissioners, two elected city officials and two citizen members. It helps guide health district operations, an important role during the pandemic.

Term limits aren’t the only changes in the new rules that were established by a county ordinance — the changes also give county commissioners more voice and authority on the health board.

Under the new ordinance, the health board can only be chaired by a commissioner, who is allowed two votes on each issue. That gives commissioners a total of four votes on the seven-member board.

The ordinance also limits citizen members to serving two consecutive four-year terms, and limits elected city officials to serving four consecutive two-year terms.

Harrer and Weaver said they didn’t learn of the new rules until after the ordinance was approved.

“It was a surprise — this was not brought up before the Board of Health in December (when the board last met),” Weaver said.

Commissioner Amanda McKinney said the changes were made after learning that the board wasn’t following its policy when making appointments.

She said the health board in November planned to reinstall existing members of expired terms without advertising the positions.

“They said it was common practice that if someone on the board decided to stay that they would just reapprove them,” McKinney said.

Commissioner LaDon Linde provided the same reason for the change.

“We just wanted to make sure we had a protocol in place for the election of the board of health members,” he said. “We wanted that codified and clarified.”

At least one board member, Dr. Sean Cleary, disputes that. He said the health board fell behind because of the pandemic and only planned on extending the expired terms for one month so the positions could be advertised.

Cleary accuses commissioners of making the changes to gain control of the board amid their pursuit of local management of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The commissioners — displeased with Gov. Jay Inslee’s shutdown orders of local businesses — have twice approved proclamations asking the governor to step aside and allow local management of the pandemic in the past month. {span}Both McKinney and Linde are new and took office in November.{/span}

Cleary said the changes will see the removal of the health board’s most experienced members — Harrer and Weaver.

Harrer, longtime mayor of Harrah, has served on the board since 1976. She’s the longest serving member of a health board in the state.

Weaver has served on the board since 2012. She’s the former vice president of Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital and a former administrator with the Yakima County Health District.

“I believe a lot of this is really directed at the COVID response and not the overall health of the health district,” Cleary said. “This should not be politically motivated just to alter the COVID response. If they have a concern with the governor’s proclamations, they should take legislative action.”

Timeline

There are 10 candidates vying for the citizens member vacancy on the board and seven candidates seeking the two elected city official positions.

A committee made of McKinney, Cleary and Yakima Health District Executive Director Ryan Ibach is expected to interview candidates sometime this month before narrowing down finalists from which the board will make final selections.

But that process may be in limbo, Cleary said.

The application period for the positions ended on Jan. 3, and the commission did not approve the ordinance enacting term limits until two days later on Jan. 5.

Cleary said it’s not fair to retroactively enforce the ordinance and that discussion is continuing on whether the new rules apply to this selection process.

He said commissioners drafted the new ordinance on Dec. 15, two days before the Dec. 17 meeting that established the nomination committee and selection process for new board members. Cleary said commissioners did not mention the new ordinance at that meeting.

McKinney said it wouldn’t have been appropriate to mention it at that time because the ordinance had yet to undergo a Dec. 29 public hearing. Objections to the ordinance could have led to it being rejected by commissioners, she said.

McKinney said in her personal opinion, the ordinance applies to this selection process.

Linde couldn’t say how the ordinance would be applied this go-round.

“I have no comment on that,” he said. “I have no answer.”

Voting power

Cleary said giving commissioners four votes gives them a majority in the seven-member board.

He also takes issue with the commission selecting one of its members as chair.

State law says the health board shall select its chair.

“It just assures that the commissioners’ vote can never be in the minority, they can never be out voted,” he said. “No one can look at the wording of this (ordinance) and think it’s a good thing — it doesn’t pass the smell test.”

Linde said commissioners on most health boards across the state hold the majority of votes on their respective health boards.

“Nearly every health board, the county commissioners have a majority vote on that board,” he said.

Nearby Benton and Franklin counties are joined under one health district. The health board has three commissioners from each county, said Rick Dawson, a health district program manager.

“It makes it really easy to determine how our board gets selected; every time we get a new commissioner, we get a new board member,” he said.

Kittitas County’s health board is composed of five members, three are county commissioners (one is the chair), one a family physician and the other a deputy fire chief, according to the district’s website.

Farther east in Spokane, the Spokane Regional Health District is guided by a 12-member board made up of three county commissioners, six elected officials from cities and towns and three citizen members.

Reach Phil Ferolito at pferolito@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @philipferolito