DENVER–As the the long-delayed 2021 Colorado legislative session gets underway, legislators are proposing to ban county commissioners from serving on county boards of health.
Sponsored by Representatives Cathy Kipp, D-Ft. Collins and Kyle Mullica, D-Northglenn and Senators Joann Ginal, D-Ft. Collins, and Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, House Bill 21-1115 not only prohibits county commissioners from being on a county health board, it removes the authority of commissioners in small counties that do not have a board of health from designating the county commission as the board of health, even if a home-rule county’s charter authorizes it.
Colorado law currently allows commissions in counties with a population under 100,000 to also act as the board of health. The bill would eliminate that provision. According to reporting in the Steamboat Pilot newspaper, 26 of the state’s 64 counties have this kind of arrangement including Routt County, where Steamboat Springs is located.
The bill also says that members of the county board of health can only be removed from office by the county commission for “willful neglect of duty, or for any cause which renders a member of the board incapable of or unable to discharge the duties of his or her office.”
By restricting dismissal of a member of a board of health, the bill seems to prevent county commissioners from removing members for taking positions in opposition to county policies or priorities.
The bill appears to be a reaction to several Colorado counties with boards of health comprising or dominated by county commissioners, including Weld and Logan counties, refusing to abide by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) and Governor Polis’ COVID-19 orders.
County commissioners in Weld County, which is a home-rule county, have broad management authority over their board of health, which in Weld County’s case is part of its health department, whose director answers to the commissioners.
Pitkin County, also a home-rule county, has at least one elected county commissioner serving on its 7-member board of health, along with elected officials from several municipalities.
CDPHE has been trying to suppress the authority of boards of county commissioners since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, often by trying to coerce county officials into compliance by increasing “dial” restrictions arbitrarily and demanding written letters from county officials promising to support CDPHE’s rules and the Governor’s proclamations as a condition of moving to lower restrictions on the “dial.”
Back in October, when CDPHE invented its COVID-19 “dial” mechanism, counties in the Northeastern Colorado Health Department (NCHD) balked at some of the onerous and seemingly arbitrary requirements in the “dial” plan.
Comprising Logan, Morgan, Phillips, Sedgwick, Washington and Yuma counties, the NCHD includes one commissioner from each of the six counties and two representatives from the largest cities in the area, Sterling and Fort Morgan.
County sheriffs in the region also refused to criminally enforce health department orders.
Travis Sides, Chief Deputy District Attorney for the 13th Judicial District also told Complete Colorado in October that enforcing or prosecuting unlawful public health orders places sheriffs and district attorneys in an untenable position.
“We have laws in Colorado that govern how they can issue public health orders. They have not followed those statutes. We have due process, even if it’s not big hoops. But there are still hoops that people have to follow,” said Sides. “I think it’s illegal for the Executive Branch to try to regulate business without going through the Legislature.”
Weld County District 1 Commissioner Mike Freeman spoke with Complete Colorado Wednesday and agrees with Sides.
“By completely bypassing both options, we believe they are unconstitutional and unenforceable,” said Freeman. “I think it’s all about control. They want decisions to come more from the state versus from local health departments. But local health departments, just like local school districts, know what’s best for the citizens in their communities, and in Weld County.”
Freeman said Colorado Counties Incorporated, (CCI), a non-profit membership organization made up of county officials, sponsored a virtual meeting with government officials and sponsors of the bill on January 8, where objection to it was unanimous.
“I know that on the call that we had with the sponsors there were probably 100 commissioners on that call, and there wasn’t anybody that was supporting it. Most of the pushback, quite honestly, was coming from counties under 100,000 where the real impact from this bill is,” Freeman said.
Smaller counties often do not have people qualified to serve on health boards, Freeman says, and further there are good reasons for commissioners to be on them.
“I think it makes sense for commissioners to be involved in public health boards because a lot of the things that get decided, the financial decisions, are made by county commissioners,” Freeman continued.
Gini Pingenot, external affairs director for CCI, told Complete Colorado on Thursday that given the unified opposition to the bill by county commissions around the state, CCI will likely formally oppose the measure.
The bill has been assigned to the House Transportation and Local Government Committee.
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