Clallam County joins Jefferson County in opposition to health bill

Clallam County commissioners have joined a chorus of North Olympia Peninsula leaders decrying a state plan to restructure the public health system.

The three commissioners said on Feb. 22 they would co-sign a letter from Jefferson County to the state Legislature opposing House Bill 1152 and Senate Bill 5149, repeating an action they took last week as members of the Clallam County Board of Health.

The initial legislation requested by Gov. Jay Inslee would shift control of both Clallam and Jefferson county public health systems to a regional department likely based in Kitsap County.

“It’s an example of a legislature gone amok,” Clallam County Commissioner Randy Johnson said in the Monday work session.

“I’ll be honest, when I reached out and talked to the other signers to this, some of them said this letter is far too nice.”

A revised version of the companion bills would retain the county health district structure. The final version will be shaped by a working group appointed by Inslee.

“It sounds like they’re putting a fair amount of eggs in the working-group-working-out-the-details basket,” Commissioner Mark Ozias said.

“I look at that both as an opportunity and something that makes me really nervous at the same time.”

The three-page letter drafted by Jefferson County Commissioner Kate Dean calls on the Legislature to keep local control of public health.

Health officers — including Clallam County’s Dr. Allison Berry and Jefferson County’s Dr. Tom Locke — would become state employees under the original legislation.

“This year, 2021, is the year to get Washingtonians vaccinated and back to work; it is NOT the year to be restructuring public health,” Dean’s letter states.

The letter is being signed by local governments and public hospital districts from across the North Olympic Peninsula.

Some counties have fired health officers who held fast to COVID-19 protocols like masking and social distancing. House Bill 1152 and Senate Bill 5149 were drafted in part to keep politics out of health decisions.

Meanwhile, Clallam and Jefferson counties have had lower rates of COVID-19 transmission — and higher rates of vaccinations — than most counties in the state.

“When we’re in a county where things are working well, as they are, it’s pretty frustrating,” Ozias said.

Johnson warned that the state working group would contain few county representatives.

According to the bill, the working group will have two representatives from the Senate, two from the House, three from local public health, two from state public health, three from counties, two from cities, one tribal representative and one representative with expertise in government finance.

“I think we really have a strong argument for being at the table and having a strong voice in that working group,” Ozias said during the work session.

Commissioner Bill Peach said the revised bills “opened the door to negotiation.”

“Rather than having the Legislature become very specific and finite on how this operates, I heard enough people, including Clallam County, say that this needs to be improved,” Peach said.

“The real question is our seat at that negotiating table. I’m glad that we’ll be monitoring that because that is how our voice will be heard.”

Ozias said his “main push” would be to ensure that Clallam County has a say in the final legislation.

“We will add our signatures to this letter,” Ozias said. “It will be on (Tuesday’s) agenda.”

Commissioners are scheduled to meet at 10 a.m. today. To view the meeting or the agenda packet, go to clallam.net/features/meetings.html.

To view the text of House Bill 1152 and Senate Bill 5149, go to leg.wa.gov.

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