By Lyndsie Kiebert
Who has the authority to take the reins during a deadly pandemic?
Elected officials — and citizens — across the state have wrestled with this question throughout the COVID-19 crisis, particularly in Bonner County, where commissioners considered a resolution to defund the Panhandle Health District before the prosecutor’s office advised the board that such action would be illegal.
Commissioner Steve Bradshaw proposed the measure in response to the multi-county mask mandate enacted Nov. 19, which he believes the health district created “outside of their authoritative boundaries” in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the five northern counties of Idaho, ultimately trampling on people’s “fundamental right” to “breathe free,” according to the resolution.
Though determined moot, that resolution sparked a conversation during a business meeting Dec. 1 about how Bonner County might take action against — or work with — the health district, from taking a closer look at PHD’s budget process to influencing Kootenai County’s choice of board members to filling a health district seat of their own.
Which budget, exactly?
Bradshaw’s resolution, which made waves when he informally introduced it during the public comment period of the commissioners’ Nov. 24 business meeting, argued that the health district was overreaching with its multi-county mask order, and Bonner County should therefore retract all future funding to PHD. For the 2021 fiscal year, the county’s contribution to the health district is budgeted at $256,985.
“Legally, we do not have the authority to do it at this time,” Board Chair Dan McDonald said Dec. 1. “We would have to do it during [the] budget period, so this item becomes moot.”
While some local and regional news outlets interpreted “budget period” to mean Bonner County’s budget workshop season — held in August of each year — the Sandpoint Reader followed up with Bonner County Deputy Prosecutor Scott Bauer to clarify.
“I think the idea is that each county can influence the district’s spending authority via their influence on the budget committee,” Bauer said, referencing a piece of Idaho Code that dictates “the chairmen of the boards of county commissioners located within the public health district are hereby constituted as the budget committee of the public health district.”
“As I understand it, Bonner’s per capita contribution is based on the district’s approved budget,” Bauer said. “So for Bonner to cause its contribution to be reduced, it would have to exercise its influence via Bonner’s chairman on the PHD Budget Committee and effect a decrease of PHD’s total budget in order to decrease Bonner’s contribution.
“So if, for example, PHD’s budget is reduced in half next July, then I believe Bonner’s per capita contribution would be reduced proportionality,” he added.
That hypothetical reduction, if approved by the majority of the county chairmen, would trigger a corresponding change to each county’s contribution. Those decisions, according to Idaho Code, “shall be binding upon all counties within the district and the district itself,” meaning that each county is on the hook for its determined contribution to the health district’s budget each year and cannot choose to “defund” or reduce funding independently.
Currently, contributions from the northernmost counties make up about 10% of the health district’s budget, which also receives state and federal funding.
A seat at the table
Despite the inability of Bonner County commissioners to take any action against PHD for the time being, each commissioner took a turn at Tuesday’s meeting to discuss their views on the mask mandate.
Commissioner Jeff Connolly expressed his concern that the commissioners were attempting to say their piece after the fact, when they should instead be more heavily involved in the health district’s process.
“I think we’ve been remiss, as county commissioners, not to be sitting at that table,” Connolly said, adding that he sees several benefits to having a sitting commissioner on the PHD board. “Glen’s done a wonderful job. Do I want to sit where Glen does? Absolutely not. But I think I should, and the reason I should is I am an elected official. You can vote me out.”
Connolly said pulling funding from the health district was not the answer.
“No matter how much money it is, are we going to be affecting what we are trying to do?” Connolly said. “Are we making some sort of a point by removing this money, and are we going to get sued? Are we going to end up in some legal brouhaha — which is a very good possibility — and are we going to spend a lot of money trying to defend that? I think there’s other ways … I don’t know where we go from here.”
McDonald emphasized personal responsibility.
“If you are compromised, please do all you can to protect yourself,” he said. “It’s your responsibility to protect your own health, it’s not the rest of the public’s responsibility — in my opinion — to protect your health.”
While the use of face coverings has been shown to protect wearers from the virus to some extent, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the main benefit of wearing masks is to keep from spreading the virus to others through droplets coming from an infected person’s nose and mouth — especially when that person is an asymptomatic spreader.
McDonald encouraged people to continue social distancing and washing their hands, noting that those procedures should already be in use during cold and flu seasons. He said he received more emails about Bradshaw’s resolution than any other issue since he took office in 2017, and that the mask mandate has created the most division he’s ever seen in Bonner County.
“We cannot continue to see this division escalate, because it’s going to get bad if we do,” he said, adding later: “Be nice. Be nice from a distance — but be nice.”
Bradshaw said that he wanted it “on the record” that he “is not trying to put Panhandle Health out of business,” but takes issue with an unelected body creating restrictions.
“Do they do good things? They do a ton of good stuff,” Bradshaw said of the health district’s various services. “But as soon as you cross that line into illegal stuff, what’s that do to your good stuff you’re doing?”
According to Idaho Code, the Panhandle Health District acted within its powers and duties by creating the mandate, seeing as health districts are charged “to do all things required for the preservation and protection of the public health.” State law gives the governor, Department of Health and Welfare, health districts and cities the authority to enact pandemic restrictions.
With Gov. Brad Little’s continued emphasis on local control over those restrictions and his repeated refusal to enact a statewide mask mandate, those decisions have become the talk of health district agendas across Idaho for the last several months. Whether those restrictions will be enforced is another issue altogether.
While the PHD mask mandate carries the threat of fine or imprisonment for those who don’t comply, Bonner County law enforcement officials have announced that they will not be enforcing it.
A (county) line in the sand
With Bradshaw’s proposal off the table and PHD’s budget not up for discussion until July 2021, conversation turned from the health district’s finances to making changes to representation on the board.
Former Bonner County Commissioner and current PHD board member Glen Bailey, present at the BOCC meeting, Dec. 1, said that defunding the health district would be “overkill.” However, he noted that the two Kootenai County PHD representatives — family physician Richard McLandress and registered nurse Jai Nelson — were the “driving force” behind the multi-county mask mandate.
“I think that the county commissioners there could be influenced to modify their representation on the Panhandle Health District board,” Bailey said.
Kootenai County commissioners had mixed reactions to Bailey’s suggestion.
“Why would I replace the only two medical professionals on the PHD Board when neither is up for reappointment yet?” Kootenai County Commissioner Chris Fillios wrote in an email to the Reader. “And I remind you that there were at least four members who voted for the mandate. Perhaps Bonner County officials should revisit their two appointments.”
Bailey and Allen Banks, both Bonner County representatives on the PHD Board, were the only two votes against the mask mandate.
Kootenai County Commissioner Leslie Duncan said, that for her, “the larger issue is if it is appropriate for health board members, who have no direct accountability to the people, to be issuing orders which stretch Idaho’s quarantine laws to the breaking point,” and characterized the mandate as a “heavy-handed, one-size-fits-all-approach.”
“I hope to work with our legislators to amend our codes to put reasonable guidance and limits on health districts’ authority,” Duncan told the Reader.
Kootenai County Commissioner Bill Brooks told the Spokesman-Review that Bradshaw’s resolution to defund PHD was a “silly threat” and that he’s “not really interested in theatrics right now.”
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