The Knox County Commission opted to delay the final vote to eliminate or maintain Knox County Board of Health’s powers. The commission voted on Monday to postpone the deciding vote for 90 days.
If passed, the measure would revert all decision-making powers to Knox County Health Department Director Dr. Martha Buchanan. Early last month, the commission took the first step to dissolve the Board of Health and reconstitute it as an advisory board. As previously reported by The Tennessee Star, the proposal sponsor, Commissioner Kyle Ward, has argued that the measure would protect the community’s financial health.
Chairman Larsen Jay told The Star that the commission has a deep divide in political philosophy on the matter.
“I think the crux of the argument comes down to a [firm belief that] no one ought to make any decisions that firmly affect you or your life or your livelihood, unless they report to an elected official. Others think that your public health shouldn’t be political, it should be in the hands of medical professionals,” stated Jay. “I think it’s good for public health infrastructure to be at arms length away from our political infrastructure, and for our health officials to make those tough decisions without worrying about re-election and politics. Others are really hung up on the fact that they want direct constitutional control. I ask them to show me any kind of court case that any of this stuff is unconstitutional.”
Jay added that he’d proposed a delay of 150 days, but that vote failed. Instead, a slim 6-5 majority opted to vote for shorter delay – but they agreed that a postponement of the discussion was necessary.
“The general sentiment for many commissioners was that it may be a worthy debate, but not to do it right now,” explained Jay. “We’re still in the throes of the pandemic; our numbers are still significant and we’re far from full vaccine [distribution].”
This wouldn’t be the first time in Knox County history that their board of health’s powers were in question around the time of a pandemic. A little over 110 years ago, Tennessee’s General Assembly passed legislation that effectively transferred the Knoxville Board of Health’s powers, as it was known then, to a board of commissioners. 7 years later, the 1918 influenza pandemic prompted commissioners to restore the board of health with all of its powers.
The current Knox County Board of Health functions as a metro health department, which means it doesn’t have to abide by state guidelines. Typically, the board meets quarterly to discuss housekeeping items such as budgets and general updates. The COVID-19 outbreak necessitated the board of health to exercise dormant authorities, such as imposing mask mandates and business curfews.
The commission will reconvene for a second reading and vote on April 26.
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Corinne Murdock is a reporter at The Tennessee Star and the Star News Network. Follow her latest on Twitter, or email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Knox County Health Department Building” by Knox County Health Department.