The Ravalli County Board of Commissioners have adopted a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Ravalli County Board of Health in an effort to delineate their respective responsibilities and duties. Both parties characterize the effort as an attempt to be proactive in addressing areas of conflict with respect to each other’s legal authorities according to statute.
Both parties agree that the law states very clearly that “The Board of Health shall appoint and set the salary for the Public Health Officer.” The problem, according to Deputy County Attorney Dan Browder, is that the law gives them that authority, but it does not give them a budget. He said state law has clearly put the county budget in the hands of the County Board of Commissioners. Browder, who represents both the Board of Commissioners and the Board of Health, said that the proposed MOU outlines how the two bodies will proceed in implementing the law in a way that respects both authorities.
In a nutshell, the agreement outlines a process of “collaboration” between the two Boards that includes a dispute resolution process if there should be some disagreement between the boards concerning the appointment or the salary for the Public Health Officer.
Commissioner Greg Chilcott called it “an age-old question,” saying, “The law gives them the authority to spend, but it doesn’t give them a budget.” He said he was concerned that, in the future, some board might set an outrageous salary.
Board of Health member Roger DeHaan said that the MOU provided a dispute resolution process in which those problems could be worked out.
“My idea is that you start out with a low salary and if you don’t get any good applications, then you try again,” said DeHaan. “Right now, we have people with great qualifications working for peanuts. I don’t know how much longer that can last.”
Commission Chair Jeff Burrows said that if things really came to logger heads, the law also states clearly that the Board of Health serves at the pleasure of the Board of Commissioners. He said that’s where the conflict would be ultimately reconciled.
“But fortunately, right now we have a great working relationship,” he said.
“Serving at the pleasure of the Board is sort of a blunt instrument,” said DeHaan. “Yes, you could fire somebody and have somebody else come sit on the board, but that can take a lot of time. If there is a vacancy in the Public Health Officer position, it needs to be filled quickly. We can’t wait for you to reconfigure your board before somebody is hired.”
Burrows noted that the Board of Health bylaws allow for the establishment of a Board of Health consisting of the County Commission and two other people.
Attorney Dan Browder said, “Here we are at a fork in the road in terms of delegating some of that authority out.”
Chilcott called the idea of establishing a Board of Health structure with the County Commissioners in charge “the nuclear option.”
“Part of the reason for this MOU is so that we won’t ever have to get there,” said DeHaan, “if we can establish these ground rules and keep everyone on speaking terms.”
Aside from the question of setting the salary, the question of who is really hiring the Public Health Officer was also discussed as well as other “staff” including the Public Health Nurse, the County Sanitarian, and the Tobacco Prevention Program Director.
Browder said that a lot of things are not clear related to the questions of supervisory capacities. He said the Board of Health obviously has some supervisory capacities over those other programs. They are the body that creates and enforces the sanitary regulations, for instance. But obviously as well, all these people are employees of the County. He said that these issues can be dealt with through the MOU and the use of the dispute resolution process outlined in there and potentially avoid litigation when dealing with these issues. He said it also may require a change in the Board of Health bylaws.
“Do you want to go to court and say that, even though the law says the Board of Health gets to set the salary, that we get to?” Browder asked the commissioners. “The MOU cannot contradict state law.” He said the Board of Health could still set the salary for the Public Health Officer and respect the Board of Commissioners’ authority to set a county budget by going through the collaborative process described in the MOU. If no agreement was reached in the process, then the proceedings could go to court.
The MOU as revised in the discussion was approved by the Board of County Commissioners and will be reviewed by the Board of Health for their final approval. Either party can withdraw from the MOU by a vote and the MOU will cease thirty days after a successful vote to withdraw.