Washington state’s top public health official spent Wednesday in Spokane to investigate why two county commissioners want to take control of the independent Spokane County Health District.
Bruce Miyahara left town “frustrated and uncomfortable” - unable, he said, to get a single rational explanation for the takeover.
“From a management and public health standpoint, it just doesn’t make sense,” he said.
Miyahara, secretary of the Washington Department of Health, conceded the state cannot stop the takeover. But if laws regulating sewers and restaurants are relaxed to benefit developers, or if disease-prevention programs such as needle exchanges and free condoms are killed by commissioners for moral reasons, the state has the authority to step in and run the agency, Miyahara said.
“What do you gain?” Miyahara asked. “All I see are risks and costs. I have no role other than to clean up a mess after it occurs.”
A quarter century ago, the Spokane County Health District became independent after breaking away from the county. It is governed by an eight-member board that includes the three county commissioners, three Spokane City Council members and two elected officials from two small towns.
Miyahara said he fears politics would interfere with public health decisions. He said a board of eight officials from four different entities is less political than a pair of county commissioners.
“Development interests tend to dominate county politics,” Miyahara said during the first of a series of meetings in Spokane which included takeover opponents, health district managers and County Commissioners Phil Harris and George Marlton.
Harris and Commissioner Steve Hasson, who refused to meet with Miyahara, said Wednesday the takeover plan still is being analyzed.
“It’s not over till it’s over,” Hasson said.
A state law - recently enacted to end wars over how to fund health departments in several Western Washington counties - gives Spokane County the right to absorb the health district. But if the merger risks public health or tax dollars, as takeover opponents claim, the county will back off, Harris and Hasson said.
Marlton told Miyahara he opposes the merger. “We can’t manage what we’re managing right now,” he said.
Miyahara’s meeting with Harris wasn’t nearly as pleasant.
Harris, chairman of the County Commission, told Miyahara he resents being pressured from an outsider to drop takeover plans.
“If there’s a fear out there, it’s not founded,” he said. “I take that as a personal affront. It’s impugning my integrity.”
Harris told the health secretary that he has eight grandchildren who have to live in the county after he’s gone. Public health will never be jeopardized under his watch, Harris said.
He used witticisms to explain away claims that he and Hasson plan to gut public health and environmental laws.
When asked how he will conduct meetings as one of three future health board members, Harris quipped: “The baby hadn’t been born yet, so I don’t know how to change the diaper.”
Miyahara has several concerns about the county taking over a health district he terms one of the state’s most successful and the East Side’s public health hub.
Health statistics prove the effectiveness of Spokane County’s Health District, he said. For example, teen pregnancies are below the state average.
When Miyahara told Harris that county commissioners generally have no grasp of public health issues, Harris said: “I don’t know how to mix asphalt and fill potholes either, but I’m responsible for that, too.”
Miyahara’s Wednesday began at 7 a.m. with a two-hour meeting with 43 citizens opposed to the county takeover. They represented a cross section of white-collar Spokane - doctors, lawyers, academicians and former politicians.
The group said it intends to bombard the county commissioners with evidence that the takeover is a bad idea.
They talked about how to allow the county commissioners to back down from the merger without losing face. They joked about holding a press conference at a cemetery with the following message: This is where you’ll end up if the county absorbs the health district.
They joked about inviting county commissioners to their next meeting.
The group finished on a serious note, however, saying the county commissioners must be persuaded to stop tinkering with one of the best in the state.
“You really have to put the pressure on,” offered former County Commissioner Pat Mummey. “It’s never over until it’s over. These are people who aren’t concerned with public health.” , DataTimes