Dramatic End to Attempted County Health Dept. Takeover

Residents spent two weeks waiting for the county council to decide whether to reorganize its health department in the middle of the pandemic.


A Pierce County Council attempt to terminate the 48-year-old agreement governing the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department and place it under its own control came to an abrupt end Dec 15. Outgoing council member Pam Roach, R-2nd District, voted against proposed Ordinance No. 2020-136 to dissolve TPCHD, which she had sponsored, blocking passage and concluding two weeks of turmoil in local politics.

The initial proposal was made Dec. 1, blindsiding the mayor of Tacoma, members of the county council and the TPCHD. The Rules and Operations Committee discussed it a week later and — after allowing less than an hour of public comment — voted along party lines to send it to the council with a recommendation for approval. The speed of the process, pushed by the term-limited outgoing council chair Doug Richardson, R-6th District, was unprecedented.

TPCHD, considered by many to be a model for the state, is overseen by an eight-member board, made up of the county executive and three council members, the mayor of Tacoma or her delegate, a Tacoma city council member, a mayor from a Pierce county municipality and a representative from the Pierce County Medical Society.

The timing of the proposal coincided with a shift from Republican to Democratic control of the council for the first time in nearly two decades. Nancy Sutton, who served eight years as deputy director of TPCHD until her retirement Dec 1, said “Coming now, in the middle of a pandemic, this is a strong and blatant attempt to absorb an independent, public health agency and bring it under political leadership.”

The county contributed nearly $5 million to TPCHD’s recent annual budget of $40 million. Tacoma contributed $1.1 million. The TPCHD website posted a 2020-21 budget of $79 million including funding from fees (47%), state and federal grants (33%), Pierce County (8.9%), and the City of Tacoma (3.3%).

Public feedback to the plan was overwhelmingly negative. Councilmen Derek Young, D-7th District, and Marty Campbell, D-5th District, said that of thousands of communications they received only a handful were in favor. “In 22 years of public service I have never seen anything this lopsided,” Young said.

County Executive Bruce Dammeier remained silent.

Young and Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards reached out to Gov. Jay Inslee for assistance. Young said Inslee was hesitant to take action, knowing that he could serve as a lightning rod, but one day before the Dec. 15 council vote he issued a proclamation prohibiting any efforts to dissolve or dismantle existing health departments unless all parties agreed, or if one party received approval from the state Department of Health during the current health crisis.

“This pause is necessary to ensure that we have a continuity and stability of our public health efforts throughout this pandemic,” Inslee said. The proclamation was widely expected to halt the council’s efforts.

The council instead responded with an amendment, which was presented to the council meeting in an executive session with Senior Legal Analyst Jeff Cox. The amendment gave authority to the county executive to make changes to TPCHD, but delayed any action until the pandemic crisis ended. Cox’s opinion was that the amendment could legally circumvent the governor’s proclamation.

Council member Connie Ladenburg, an outgoing Democrat from District 4, warned that taking any action on the proposed ordinance would open the council to legal action and excused herself from the meeting. Young and Campbell agreed with Ladenburg’s assessment.

The amendment was approved along party lines.

The council meeting that immediately followed included nearly four hours of calls from county residents, health care professionals and elected officials. Of the scores of callers only three spoke in favor of the ordinance.

Each council member made remarks prior to voting.

“My vote tonight will be based on what I think is right,” Roach said. She had been asked by Richardson to sponsor a bill he had written and she did not know she would be the sole sponsor, and was not consulted about the amendment. She said it represented her belief in one person, one vote, but that she also believed in transparency in government, and that the governor’s proclamation angered her.

Young and Campbell, both of whom opposed the ordinance, said that any action that might threaten or distract TPCHD during the pandemic was dangerous and that evaluation and improvement should take place after the pandemic crisis was over.

The other Republican members (Richardson and Jim McCune, R-3rd District, are outgoing, Dave Morrell, R-1st District, is serving his first four-year term) announced they planned to approve. McCune said they were not trying to dismantle TPCHD but to shift the oversight solely to the county council because their constituents were not adequately represented. They also said they wanted to streamline the department, especially with regards to permitting.

Richardson called for the vote. Roach voted first. “No,” she said. Republican voices cried out. “What? What happened?” The final vote was three-to-three with one abstention, and the motion failed.

Following the vote, County Executive Dammeier tweeted: “The debate @PierceCoCouncil today begins a conversation about the future of public health in @PierceCo after the pandemic. I hope to work w/our new Council and stakeholders in our community to craft a shared version of the future of public health.”

Roach explained her decision in a letter published online in The Suburban Times. “I believe the need for an informed and involved citizenry trumps one man, one vote. Without having given the citizens time to digest and to respond to (her bill), the council disregarded the principle of ‘open government,’ which I have long fought to achieve and maintain,” she wrote.

Young, who will become council chair in January, told KP News he looked forward to evaluating the TPCHD. “Health departments have evolved following a health crisis,” he said. “County health departments first formed in response to polio. We can look at this crisis and learn.”

Young said that previous divestment in public health meant being unprepared for the pandemic, and that he would like to move toward expanding partnerships instead of ending them. “I’d like to explore partnerships with other cities, to reach out to other health experts and schools. It’s not just about water and sewer permits, but let’s talk to the realtors and master builders. We’re going to do all that. We’re just going to do it when the time is right.”