GarCo Dems want commissioners off county health board
Party leaders support bill to remove political influence over public health decisions
The Garfield County Democratic Party has endorsed a bill making its way through the Colorado Legislature that would remove elected county commissioners from the statutorily required local public health board.
But the three Republican county commissioners say they intend to continue serving in their roles on the Garfield County Board of Health.
The health board takes advice from and gives direction to the county’s Department of Public Health, and decides certain policy matters, especially when it comes to spending.
County-level health boards have become crucial during the past year in the COVID-19 pandemic response.
Many, including those in neighboring Pitkin and Mesa counties, have relied heavily on medical experts and institutional representatives in helping to make those decisions, county Democrats pointed out in a recently issued press release.
Commission Chairman John Martin noted during a discussion at the March 8 county commissioners meeting with Democratic Party Chairwoman Debbie Bruell that the county could add medical professionals and other representatives as voting members of the health board.
Counties with a population greater than 100,000 are required to have an expanded public health board, and those smaller than 100,000, such as Garfield County, have the discretion to do so, Martin said.
Martin also pointed out that all 64 members of Colorado Counties, Inc. (CCI) have come out in opposition to HB 21-1115.
For now, Martin and his fellow commissioners, Tom Jankovsky and Mike Samson, said they’re comfortable with the current arrangement.
The bill would prevent commissioners from serving concurrently as county commissioners and county Board of Health members. Supporters of the measure have said the bill would help remove politics from public health decisions.
Bruell, during the March 8 commissioners meeting discussion, initially said she wasn’t asking to exclude the commissioners from the health board. She later signed on in support of the party’s endorsement of the bill, however.
“With this bill, the county commissioners would still have the power to appoint the members of our county health board,” Bruell said in the March 11 release.
“The bill would simply ensure that the health policies and plans of our county are not determined without input from community representatives and without the expertise of at least one independent medical or health professional,” she said.
Bruell praised the work of Garfield Public Health and its team of nurse epidemiologists and other specialists during the pandemic.
But, “in our opinion, asking our health department employees to critically evaluate the commissioners’ health policies and plans is essentially asking them to criticize their ‘boss,’” she said.
The bill would help to insulate public health professionals from political influences in making policy decisions that are in the best interests of public health, Bruell said.
Beatriz Soto, a founder of Voces Unidas Roaring Fork Valley who ran for county commissioner against Martin last fall, said the county health board should also be more broadly representative of the county population.
“Including members of the Latino community, women, young people, as well as a variety of health professionals would also help to ensure that public health efforts are strategically designed and can reach and serve the diverse members of our community,” Soto said in the Democratic Party’s press release.
Martin said the commissioners, in their role as the Board of Health, do listen to the expert advice of both the county’s Public Health Department and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
“We do take our job very seriously and listen to our staff in making policy,” Martin said.
CCI President and Freemont County Commissioner Debbie Bell, in a March 2 letter to state legislators, said the bill will not eliminate politics from public health decisions. Rather, it will add another level of bureaucracy and potentially slow the response on public health matters and make it harder for public health professionals to do their jobs, she said.
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