Tennessee House to consider bill rolling back health department authority, giving authority to county mayors

Local Coronavirus Coverage

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) – A measure has been introduced to the Tennessee House of Representatives which would roll back health departments’ autonomy but instead, during health emergencies, place authority with elected county mayors.

State Rep. Jason Zachary (R-Knoxville) filed the legislation for 2021, designed to scale back the power of Tennessee’s six independent metropolitan health departments during their response to a county-wide health emergency.

House Bill 7 dials back the autonomy of the state’s six independent health departments in Davidson, Hamilton, Knox, Madison, Shelby, and Sullivan Counties.

These six counties currently have boards comprised of unelected members or appointed health directors with their own authority to issue health directives independently from the state.

Under House Bill 7, any county health director, health officer and board of health would move to an advisory role, while elected county mayors would have the final authority to establish and implement policies in response to a county-wide health emergency.

“It would move the health boards in those counties to an advisory role which in most cases was the intent of those boards…giving the county mayors in those counties- the county executive the final say,” Rep. Zachary told News Channel 11. “In state government, the Department of Health Commissioner Piercey advises the governor, the governor makes the final decision.”

In Sullivan County, in 1988, the county commission elected to have a self-run health department. Contrary to the other Tennessee counties with independently operated heath departments, Sullivan County does not have a board of directors — just a director.

“In Sullivan County, your director of health could make decisions at the objection of the county mayor and there be nothing the county mayor could do as the elected executive to override that,” Zachary explained.

Other Northeast Tennessee legislators do not feel the same.

“Sullivan County doesn’t need this bill and we don’t need to be a part of it,” Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable told News Channel 11. “In Sullivan County, we have a system that has worked well for us and I will request that our members of the General Assembly remove Sullivan County from this bill.”

Venable added that the Sullivan County Regional Health Department’s director reports directly to the mayor.

“The medical director of Sullivan County is appointed by the mayor and ratified by the county commission,” he explained.

News Channel 11’s Anslee Daniel reached out to Sullivan County Health Department Director Gary Mayes Thursday for comment, but he was unavailable at the time. He did tell News Channel 11 that if this piece of legislature passes, it would have a big impact on his department.

Tennessee Rep. Bud Hulsey said that he was in favor of the measure, however, would like to see Sullivan County not included.

“I’m going to talk to Zachary at some point of either exempting Sullivan County or writing an amendment that deals specifically with the issues that Zachary is dealing with which Sullivan County would not,” Hulse said. “Anytime there’s a problem that creates a venue to have unconstitutional things happen – it needs to be fixed by the state legislature.”

In Rep. Zachary’s district in West Knox County, the matter of a county health board having authority has been a hot button issue throughout the pandemic. The Knox County Board of Health has issued public health orders including closures, mask mandates, and more.

“It was the fact the health department was issuing those orders along with a criminal penalty, they were advised by our law director who is an elected here in Knox County and our sheriff… the law director said those weren’t steps they could take and the Sheriff said he wasn’t going to enforce it. So, it created some real tension within our community,” Rep. Zachary explained.

Tennessee 1st House District Rep. John Crawford told News Channel 11 that he wants to look more into the measure, as well as ask his constituents how they feel about this legislation.

“This is a bill that was brought to the house last year. I think it went through a couple of the committees and then it died out for lack of interest and due to some of the other things that were happening with COVID,” Rep. Crawford explained. “Right now, the board answers really to nobody and this puts some responsibility to the county mayors to the people in why they make those decisions.”

Like Rep. Hulsey, Rep. Crawford said the focus needs to remain at the state level.

“Looking at several different things at the state level — do we need to make some changes? Do we need to take some of those powers away from the governor, from the health department, from these state organizations… to limit those in how we react to things,” he said.

The legislation is strongly supported by members of House Republican leadership — including House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville).

Sexton has worked closely with Rep. Zachary, as well as business and community leaders to craft a solution to address situations where burdensome policies implemented by unelected boards continue to hamper economic recovery efforts from COVID-19 in certain communities across Tennessee.

“Our elected officials are held accountable by voters through the election process; we also elect our leaders to make tough decisions, not to have those decisions made by unelected bureaucrats,” said Speaker Sexton. “The independent health boards are unrestricted with their autonomy and control, and their unchecked actions are further damaging businesses in areas like Davidson, Knox, and Shelby Counties. I appreciate Chairman Zachary for his hard work and for his desire to continue standing with our business and community leaders. Together, we will ensure a strong economic recovery across all three grand divisions of our state.”

The 2021 legislative session officially begins on Jan. 12, 2021.

For more information on House Bill 7, click here.

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