Knox County Commission Aims To Limit Health Board Power; Hamilton County Defers To State Law

The Knox County Commission Attempts To Limit Health Board Power Granted By State Law; Hamilton County Commission Sustains While State Law May Change Early Next Year. 

The Knox County Commission has decided to move forward with an ordinance that aims to limit the powers given to the Board of Health. 

Commissioners approved the Ordinance on its first reading with six voting ‘yes’, four voting ‘no’ and one commissioner passing on the vote. 

If passed on second reading, the ordinance aims to remove the board’s ability to create policies and transition the board to a strictly advisory role. 

The ordinance intent is to shift the policy making power to the Department of Health, specifically to the director of the Knox County Health Department, Dr. Martha Buchanan.  

Knox County Commissioner Kyle Ward introduced the ordinance and states that his focus is to lift regulations on businesses in Knox County. 

Knox County 8th District Commissioner Richie Beeler expressed that the change is not drastic.  

“I actually believe this is a reasonable change that is procedural in nature and offers a more constitutional way of making these decisions,” Beeler said. 

However, 6th District Commissioner Terry Hill expressed concerns that during the COVID crisis, changes such as this would only intensify divisions and conflicts in the public. 

“In fact, I would suggest to you that it (the change) would only make it even worse.”, Hill said. 

Knox County 7th District Commissioner Charles Busler said, “I know one thing, a non-elected board should not create laws.” 

Dr. Martha Buchanan has previously stated that she does not want the board’s power to be diminished.   

During the meeting, Buchanan reported on rising COVID-19 cases in Knox County and told the Commissioners that the time is not right to make a change.  

“We’re not in a good place and I would say that deciding who has the authority to make decisions right now is like confronting a wildfire and arguing over who needs to hold the hose,” Buchanan said. 

The ordinance will need to be approved next month on a second reading next before going into effect.  

However, even if the ordinance passes, Tennessee State Law still empowers County Health Boards and Health Departments to govern the County Health policies. 

This means the ordinance would in effect only shift the Health Board’s power to the Health Department unless Tennessee law is changed. 

This Tennessee State Law that empowers County Health Departments and Health Boards also applies to independent, non-elected Health Boards and Health Departments. 

With that in mind, State Representative Jason Zachary from Knoxville introduced a bill in November that is designed to limit the authority of independent health departments in the State.

In an interview with The Tennessee Conservative, Zachary stated, “These health boards have basically been given legislative and executive authority. This bill (House Bill 7) addresses this.” 

Zachary’s legislation is aimed to balance the need for county executives to make decisions based on advice of public health experts but still remain directly accountable to their constituents. 

Tennessee’s independent health departments include those in Davidson, Hamilton, Knox, Madison, Shelby, and Sullivan Counties. 

If passed, House Bill 7, will give County Mayors the final authority in establishing and implementing policies in response to a health emergencies. 

The bill would also give Mayors the authority to transition county health directors, health officers, and health boards to a strictly advisory role. 

Representative Zachary stated, “The process for the bill will begin in January but it may take 4 or 5 weeks to get it on the floor. Governor Lee has already told me he is ready to sign it, so, hopefully, we will get this passed no later than February.” 

It appears that there are currently no plans being made on the county-level in Hamilton County to limit the power of the Health Department as a contingency if House Bill 7 does not pass. 

Hamilton County District 8 County Commissioner, Tim Boyd stated that he is “definitely unaware of any discussion for such a resolution by the Hamilton County commission.” 

But he also expressed, “As I understand the matter locally, our Health Department is already in an advisory position through the county mayor’s office.”  

Hamilton County District 3 County Commissioner, Greg Martin stated that, “The director of the department answers to the County Mayor. The authority of the chief health officer in the county comes from the State and not the County Commission.”   

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