A new group — Yakima Health First — has formed in response to changes Yakima County commissioners made to rules governing the county’s Board of Health.
The commission’s recently approved ordinance sets term limits for some Board of Health members and affords more power to commissioners. Several people from the new group voiced concern during the commissioners’ regular business meeting Tuesday.
The health board is composed of three commissioners, two elected officials from area cities and towns and two citizen members. The board helps guide health district operations, a role that has come into sharp focus during the pandemic.
The speakers took issue with the way the ordinance was crafted without the knowledge of the full health board, said the change wasn’t publicized enough to garner sufficient public input and asked what a local plan to manage the pandemic would look like.
They also said they wanted a board that included a stronger voice from members with medical backgrounds.
“I don’t see a medical degree between any one of you,” one of the group’s members said to commissioners.
Under the new ordinance, city and town elected officials are allowed to serve four consecutive two-year terms and citizen members are allowed two consecutive four-year terms.
The board is only to be chaired by a commissioner who gets two votes on the seven-member board. Commissioners approved the ordinance Jan. 5.
Wendy Steere, who manages a Starbucks in west Yakima, started the Facebook group after reading a news story about the changes to the health board.
“It was pretty spontaneous,” she said. “I started it about 30 minutes after reading the story.”
Commissioners Amanda McKinney and LaDon Linde responded to concerns by reading from prepared statements. Commissioner Ron Anderson did not weigh in on the discussion.
McKinney and Linde said the board hadn’t been following its policy governing expired terms and making appointments.
McKinney said the health board was prepared to reinstall Harrah Mayor Barbara Harrer, Yakima City Councilwoman Kay Funk and citizen member Gail Weaver during a Dec. 2 meeting.
McKinney said she objected and that the health board then moved to vote to extend their terms by a month to provide time to advertise the positions and go through a selection process.
McKinney said members with expired terms were allowed to vote for their own term extensions.
“The potential legal jeopardy of these actions cannot be understated,” she said in her statement.
Linde concurred and said the process of devising the new ordinance was done legally and transparently.
Commissioners during a public meeting Dec. 15 scheduled a Dec. 29 public hearing on the ordinance, and notice was published in the Yakima Herald-Republic, according to the ordinance.
“Finally, all the meetings where we discussed changes to the health board ordinance were public meetings, which means we were transparent. We didn’t deliberate in secret. All these meetings were advertised to the public,” Linde read from his statement.
Yakima Health First group members said they understand commissioners may have followed the legal requirements for such change but say they should have done more than the “legal minimum” to inform the public.
In an interview after the meeting, Angie Girard said she was upset to learn that health board members other than commissioners were not made aware such a change was coming and said it seems that it was sneaked past the public as well.
“I think they could have done a little more if they really wanted public input,” Girard said. “Something of this magnitude that is going to change the board this significantly — it just happened so fast.”
Girard, director of accreditation of compliance policy at the Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences, said she’s not speaking on behalf of the university.
She said there is concern about having much of the health board’s power rest in the hands of elected officials without any medical background.
Linde formerly served as director of medical staff services at Astria Sunnyside Hospital, a position that doesn’t require a medical degree.
“We feel that there should be more physicians and health care providers, people who have worked in public health,” Girard said. “They’re the ones with the understanding.”
Steere said the ordinance is marred by politics and a way to object to Gov. Jay Inslee’s statewide restrictions intended to slow the virus’ spread.
“I just think that the frustration with the virus is misplaced,” she said after the meeting. “We just really want a board that’s informed by health and science and not political rhetoric.”