I assumed Pierce County Councilmember Pam Roach would conclude her angry and protracted political career by cussing out a random aide and flashing her pension returns at young reporters on the way out of chambers, but it appears she'd rather go out torching the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department (TPCHD) in the middle of a deadly respiratory virus outbreak instead—though I guess she still has time to do both.
On Monday the council passed an ordinance out of committee that would dissolve the county's nearly 50-year partnership with Tacoma and place control of the health department in the hands of the council and the executive alone.
Booting Tacoma would blow a $1 million hole in the department's budget, prompt a major reorganization in the middle of a health crisis, and ultimately consolidate more power around Republican County Exec Bruce Dammeier just as Democrats prepare to retake control of the council for the first time in 17 years.
The major motivation behind this last-minute, lame duck power-grab? The casual observer might guess they want to buck COVID-19 restrictions, but reporting in The News Tribune suggests the Republicans want to blow up the health department in the middle of a pandemic to make it easier for their campaign donors to build tract-housing in rural areas.
Outgoing Republican Councilmember Doug Richardson, who introduced the bill, told TNT "that 'streamlining' the permitting process for development in rural parts of the county played a 'significant' role in his support of the ordinance." Richardson denied that his desire to "streamline" the permitting process had anything to do with the money his campaign received from home-builders who really want to build more homes in rural parts of the county.
Why would dissolving the current structure of the health department make home-builders happy? Because the health department's Environmental Health team handles permitting for water wells and septic tanks, and if Republicans have more control over that department, then they think they can "streamline" the process to issue those permits and allow for more sprawl.
This admission comes after over a week and a half of reporters, lawmakers, and health officials asking Republicans on the council what the hell they're thinking. Before I go on my overdetermined little rant about Democrats not wielding power the way Republicans wield power in a political system that only understands power, it's worth reviewing how we got here.
• The bill came out of nowhere. Lame duck Republican Councilmember Richardson introduced the proposal last week without telling anyone on the board of health, and with only 30-minutes notice to his Democratic colleagues on the council. During a health board meeting last week, Councilmember Derek Young said he was "blindsided." Buckley Mayor Pat Johnson said the proposal “sounded like a hostile takeover.” Health board chair and Tacoma City Councilmember Catherine Ushka called the bill "an interesting gift of 2020, and I say that with sarcasm."
• The timeline for approving a proposal like this is insane. Richardson dropped the bill on Dec 1, and the lame duck Republican-majority council will vote on final passage on Dec 15. Remember when the King County Council wanted to take over the county's art department? It took them three months. Pierce County Republicans will likely decide to upend the public health department next Tuesday.
• While the incoming Democratic majority could vote to scrap the proposal next year, County Executive Dammeier could veto that decision and force the council to reorganize the department before the agreement with Tacoma officially dissolves at the end of 2021. Councilmember Young said there might be some "deus ex machina possibilities" for getting around that veto, but they're all "bank shots," and he doesn't want to rely on them for something like this, so it will all eventually come down to Dammeier.
• Right now, Dammeier is "not commenting while the Council is considering the proposed ordinance," according to a spokesperson. The one thing he has said on the subject is misleading. At last week's health board meeting, he dismissed the rest of the board's concerns by saying, "If [the proposal] goes through…it is following the lines of many other counties around the state of Washington including King, Whatcom County, Clark County."
• However, like the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, Seattle and King County jointly run Public Health Seattle & King County, which is why it's called Public Health Seattle & King County. The agreement between the two governments was formalized all the way back in 1951, according to the county. Though King County runs the administrative stuff, like the TPCHD, members of the King County Council, the Seattle City Council, suburban cities, and health care professionals sit on the board of health.
• While it's true that the county councils of Whatcom and Clark also serve as the health board in those counties, those counties are also much smaller than Pierce, which has a population north of 900,000. Those smaller counties often just pass through federal dollars tied to specific public health programs, but larger counties often want to do stuff like boost funding to cut down on the spread of STIs and other infectious diseases and reduce the number of kids entering the foster care system. Anything the health board wants to do to address the county's particular needs comes from the department's "health pool" fund, which sits at around $6 million for the biennium. Tacoma contributes $1 million to that total, so booting them will likely shrink the amount of money available for those efforts. In a blog post TPCHD health director Anthony Chen said the council's takeover might also end up causing the department to lose out on grants "for innovative efforts that Department of Health, Ecology, CDC, FDA the Washington State Legislature and private funders have supported from water quality and food safety improvements to potentially preventable hospitalization." Republicans likely don't give a shit about any of this, of course, because they don't believe in using the power of the government to help people.
• The other reasons the council's Republicans give for making this move are also dumb. Roach made a populist appeal to conservative radio, arguing that the county-only structure would give voters more say over how the health department runs. She suggested that "bureaucrats" currently run the department, and said "none of these people are accountable to the people when you think about it." And in a tweet, Republican Councilmember Dave Morrell argued that now was the time to reorganize the department "as we round out this pandemic," suggesting that public health only needs to tie up a few loose ends on this COVID-19 thing and then we're done.
• In reality, of course, we're at the height of the virus' latest surge. Though a vaccine will be on its way soon, the department still has to coordinate distribution countywide, which will require more coordination between the county and the cities and rural areas, not less. And to Roach's populist argument: elected officials make up seven of the eight members on the board of health. Three members of the county council sit on the board, as does Exec Dammeier, so people in unincorporated Pierce County are pretty well represented. If people want to hold the health board accountable, they can vote against the vast majority of its board members.
• Nobody with a brain in their head and any interest in public health sees the council's move as a good idea. The Washington State Medical Association said the proposal "severely troubled" them. A local lung doctor named Patrick Scott Meehan called the ordinance "impractical, ineffectual, and unnecessary." TPCHD health director Dr. Chen said "the Health Department needs to focus all of its attention on ending COVID-19 in Pierce County," and added that "efforts that divide our attention from this critical public health response are an unfortunate distraction."
• The public doesn't seem to like it, either. Recent council meetings have been virtually packed with people opposing the proposal. "I’ve been in local government for 22 years," Councilmember Young said over the phone, "I have never seen more universal public outrage like this. It’s incredible. We’ve gotten hundreds and hundreds of emails."
Nevertheless, despite popular opposition, on Tuesday the current Republican-majority council will probably vote to dissolve the governance of the public health department while using bullshit populist claims to justify their positions. Lame duck Republicans in Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Michigan have pulled the same kind of shit recently, all because Republicans aren't shy about wielding every ounce of power they have, norms be damned. Democrats might take note.