Disagreement over new Board of Health rules drafted by Yakima County commissioners wasn’t resolved during a special meeting Wednesday night that was heated at times.

Yakima County Prosecutor Joe Brusic sparred with Yakima Health District attorney James Elliott over state statutes governing health boards.

Health board member Dr. Sean Cleary accused commissioners of ill intent, saying they only drafted the new rules to defy Gov. Jay Inslee’s orders in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Commissioner Amanda McKinney strongly disagreed, saying commissioners support the health board.

Legal opinion

Brusic said commissioners were acting within their legal authority when drafting the new rules that they approved by ordinance on Jan. 5.

“I think it’s very methodical and a legal position to say they have legal authority to do what they did,” he said.

Elliott disagreed, saying Brusic’s legal perspective was too narrow.

Now, health board members plan to review the function and makeup of other health boards across the state before taking the matter up again during another special meeting scheduled for April 14.

The new rules set term limits and give commissioners more power on the health board, such as requiring the health board be chaired by a commissioner who would get two votes on matters. They also give commissioners control over committees and the nomination of board members and health officers for the Yakima Health District.

The health board is composed of all three county commissioners, two elected officials from cities and towns and two citizen members.

Brusic cited state law that had not yet been brought into the discussion, saying it provides legal ground for commissioners to draft such an ordinance that influences the health board and respective health district.

He cited RCW 70.46.031, which outlines commissioners’ authority to create a heath district by resolution or ordinance and that “the resolution or ordinance may specify the membership, representation on the district health board, or other matters relative to the formation or operation of the health district.”

“It gives the commission the ability to do arguably what they proposed to do Jan. 5, 2021,” Brusic said.

Disagreeing, Elliott pointed to a statue he’s cited in the past, RCW 70.05.030.

That statute appears to limit a commission’s authority over a health board to matters involving its size and composition. He said the statue Brusic cites only deals with the initial creation of a health board.

The commissioners’ ordinance changes an existing health board, Elliott said.

“This ordinance is not creating a new health district, that’s the point of 70.46.031,” he said.

Elliott pressed Brusic over the matter, even asking if Brusic intended to sue the health district.

Brusic, flanked by deputy prosecutor Don Anderson — who heads the county’s civil division — said his focus was merely to provide legal advice to commissioners without any intention to file a lawsuit in the matter.

Anderson said both statutes reference one another and should be read together when coming to legal opinions.

Either way, the meeting wasn’t a court hearing and the matter could ultimately be decided by a judge, Brusic said.

“Whether we’re right or wrong is left up to someone else, a court,” he said.

Heated discussion

The meeting became heated when Cleary alleged the ordinance was an effort by commissioners to defy Inslee’s orders aimed at slowing the spread of the virus. He took issue with provisions in the new rules giving commissioners control over health board committees, saying it could lead to a defunding of the health district and loss of government provided COVID-19 funds and resources needed to continue managing the pandemic.

He said the ordinance threatens the work already done here to establish vaccination sites, community education, outreach and other efforts in managing the pandemic.

“This ordinance threatens to cut the legs out from underneath them,” he said.

Commissioner Amanda McKinney said that’s not the intention.

“That’s absolutely is not the case and we support the efforts of the county health board and that has to go on the record,” she said.

McKinney said the health board’s failure to follow its own rules on appointing its members is what prompted the ordinance.

On Dec. 2, the health board was poised to reappointed three members whose terms had expired, but instead extended their terms for a month after McKinney questioned the move. Health board members with expired terms — Gail Weaver, Harrah Mayor Barbara Harrer and Yakima City Council member Dr. Kay Funk — were allowed to vote for their extensions.

McKinney continued to raise concern about that matter, and that decision was rescinded at a Dec. 17 special meeting. New board members were added.

“That’s how we got to where we are today, that has to be recognized,” she said.