Even before the COVID pandemic hit, state Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, was attending the sometimes contentious Ravalli County Public Health Board meetings about updating sewage regulations.
On Wednesday, Bedey said what he saw there helped guide legislation he passed in Helena that changed the rules for the operation of the council going forward.
House Bill 121 requires regulations made by local boards of health to be approved by county commissions or city councils. It allows public health officials to issue warrants during a state of emergency, but these would be subject to change or revocation by local elected officials.
Boards of health also lost the power to hire the local health officer under Bedey’s legislation.
Bedey said the bill removed the line of attack he often heard at those previous meetings.
“I felt like our board of health had suffered a lot of abuse that it shouldn’t have suffered,” Bedey said. “I’ve heard people say that since you’re not elected, you shouldn’t make regulations. So I said okay, let these regulations be approved by elected officials.
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During the pandemic, many local public health officials have come under attack when enforcement measures aimed at slowing the spread of COVID have been implemented. Bedey said it was clear the Montana Legislature was going to take action to address what some saw as overbreadth.
“You were going to push legislation through this legislature that was going to affect public health,” Bedey said. “I wanted to put together as good a bill as possible that hits the sweet spot, but I didn’t overstep the bounds… You may not like HB 121 compared to the established status quo, but I guarantee you that you would have liked other things much worse.”
“A big part of my motivation is that we have a legitimacy crisis of our government and our institutions across the country,” Bedey said. “I wanted to make sure I got a bill that preserves the power of public health officials and also preserves their legitimacy in the eyes of the public.”
“You may not agree with me, but in our country people seek to have the law made by the people they elect,” he said. “To the extent that this legislation imposes on elected officials the responsibility of developing these laws and regulations, I think it reinforces the legitimacy of the actions you take.”
Board of health members and the public health officer said Bedey’s legislation shouldn’t have a major impact on what they do.
Board member Dr Michael Turner said the board understands that Helena will always make changes that require them to adapt.
“There will always be adjustments from the legislature,” Turner said. “This is just one adjustment in a long series of adjustments that we are going to have to make.”
Ravalli County Public Health Officer Dr. Carol Calderwood said those involved in public health, including the county commission, have worked together before and that won’t change that.
“I think everyone here really wants the best for the county,” Calderwood said. “I think we have all worked together to ensure that the county performs at our best when it comes to health and safety and other aspects, whether economic, emotional or spiritual. I think everyone here has the right intentions.
“I think we may have different routes to get there,” she said. “I don’t think these changes are going to change that. I think we can make it happen because we have good communication.
Ravalli County Commissioner and Board of Health Member Jeff Burrows said the commission was proactive and made adjustments before the legislation was enacted, which should ensure there won’t be any major changes.
For example, Burrows said the county commission joined the health board when it passed the sewage regulations to ensure the commission agreed with the updated regulations. The committee also discussed the fixing of the salary of the health worker.
“The board of health does not have budgetary power,” he said. “We saw this as a loophole in state law even before HB 121 came to light.”
Bedey said there are other laws regarding public health that may have issues that will need to be interpreted by local jurisdictions over time. In some cases, the gray areas of new legislation may need to be clarified in the next legislative session.
“We don’t have a disaster here,” Bedey said. “Public health will be able to continue to do its job. You will continue to do so in an institutional environment where elected officials will have their skin in the game.
“We live in a time when the legitimacy of actions taken by all branches of government at all levels is being attacked by people on the far left and the far right,” he said. “You can’t ignore that this is the environment we live in.”