Even before the COVID pandemic hit, state Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, was sitting in on the sometimes contentious Ravalli County Public Health Board meetings on updating wastewater regulations.
On Wednesday, Bedey said that what he saw there helped guide the legislation he carried in Helena that changed the rules under which the board will operate in the future.
House Bill 121 requires regulations developed by local health boards be approved by either county commissions or city councils. It allows for public health officials to issue mandates during a state of emergency, but those would be subject to modification or revocation by local elected officials.
Health boards also lost the power to hire the local health officer under Bedey’s legislation.
Bedey said the bill removed the line of attack that he often heard while attending those earlier meetings.
“I felt like our board of health took a lot of abuse that they ought not to have had to take,” Bedey said. “I heard people argue that since you’re not elected officials, you shouldn’t be making regulations. So I said fine, let’s let those regulations have to be approved by elected officials.”
During the pandemic, many local public health officials came under attack when enforcement actions intended to slow the spread of COVID were implemented. Bedey said it was obvious the Montana Legislature was going to take action to address what some saw as overreach.
“You were going to get legislation through this legislature that was going to affect public health,” Bedey said. “I was concerned with putting together as good a bill as possible that hit the sweet spot, but didn’t go overboard … You may not like HB 121 as compared to the established status quo, but I guarantee you would have liked some other things a heck of lot worse.”
“A lot of my motivation is that we have a crisis of legitimacy of our government and our institutions across the country,” Bedey said. “I wanted to ensure that I had a bill that preserves the power of public health officials and also preserves their legitimacy in the eyes of the public.”
“You may disagree with me but in our country, people look to have the law made by the people they elect,” he said. “To the extent that this legislation puts the onus on elected officials in making those laws and regulations, I think that I’m enhancing the legitimacy of the actions you take.”
Both members of the health board 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 there will always be changes coming out of Helena that require them to adjust.
“There are always going to be tweaks from the legislature,” Turner said. “This is just one tweak in a long line of tweaks that we’re going to have to do.”
Ravalli County Public Health Officer Dr. Carol Calderwood said people involved in public health, including the county commission, have already been working together and this won't change that.
“I think that everyone here really wants the best for the county,” Calderwood said. “I think we all worked together for the county to provide the best we could for health and safety and other aspects, whether those were economic, emotional or spiritual. I think everyone here has the right intentions.”
“I think we may have different routes in getting there,” she said. “I don’t feel these changes are going to change that. I think we can work through it because we have good communication.”
Ravalli County commissioner and health board member Jeff Burrows said the commission has been proactive and made adjustments before the legislation was enacted that should ensure there won’t be any major changes.
For instance, Burrows said the county commission joined the health board when it passed the wastewater regulations to make certain that commission concurred with the updated regulations. The commission has also addressed setting the health officer’s salary.
“The board of health doesn’t have budget authority,” he said. “We saw that as a flaw in state law before HB 121 even came up.”
Bedey said there was other legislation concerning public health that may have issues that will need to be interpreted by local jurisdictions over time. In some cases, gray areas in the new legislation may need to be clarified in the next legislative session.
“We don’t have a disaster here,” Bedey said. “Public health is going to be able to continue to do its job. You’re going to continue to do it in an institutional environment where elected officials will have skin in the game.”
“We live in a time when the legitimacy of actions taken by all branches of government at all levels are under attack by people on the far left and on the far right,” he said. “You can’t ignore that’s the environment that we live in.”