At one point, more than four hours after the Knox County Commission’s marathon meeting had begun, Chairman Larsen Jay appealed to the chain of speakers still set before him there to talk about the Knox County Board of Health’s powers.
The commission would hear the remaining 20 or so speakers – adding another hour-plus to the meeting – but he’d prefer speakers consolidate their speeches to save time.
Someone from the crowded, unmasked balcony shouted, “You created this problem.”
And so it went.
After meeting for nearly seven hours, the commission followed (some of) the crowd’s requests, 8-3. They voted on and approved a toothless resolution that stated they desired the board of health’s powers be stripped.
But they did not strip any powers. They did not abolish the board.
There was little discussion about the actual substance of the resolution, though more than one commissioner agreed that it wouldn’t change anything.
The main concern was that the health experts on the board are appointed, not elected, and that Gov. Bill Lee granted them powers to enact pandemic safety measures. The board passed two over the summer: a mask mandate to help slow the spread and a temporary 11 p.m. bar and restaurant closure time to help stop transmission via close contact.
Most of the commissioners’ time was spent quizzing board of health member Dr. Patrick O’Brien and board member and Knox County Health Department Director Dr. Martha Buchanan (via Zoom) in a question-and-answer session.
There were questions about whether the board could implement soda bans and label gun violence a health concern – Knox County Law Director David Buuck said the board could – and there was lamenting from Commissioner Carson Dailey about the punishment for disobeying a health order, even though there has been no such punishment given to date.
Jay, a Republican, was joined by the commission’s two Democrats, Dasha Lundy and Courtney Durrett, in opposing the resolution. Like he said last week, Jay was concerned about language in the resolution that stated that commission wished that violators of the board of health would not face punishment from law enforcement.
Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs was not at Monday’s meeting after he and Chief of Staff Bryan Hair were rear-ended Monday, according to county spokesperson Mike Donila. Neither was seriously injured, he said.
More: ‘I felt threatened’: Board of health members slam Glenn Jacobs for ominous video
Last week, Jacobs told board meeting he would personally stand next to any health board member who wanted to speak at commission after board member Dr. Marcy Souza said she was afraid to go to Monday’s meeting with the vitriol surrounding the board’s decisions.
Health board members used a recent meeting to admonish Jacobs for narrating an ominous video that says the nation is under attack from “sinister forces within” and showed images of the board members’ faces.
Why the resolution changed
The Knox County Commission’s resolution was changed late last week. The previous version used the word “shall” to prevent the board of health from implementing safety measures stricter than those handed down by the state. It also aimed to prevent police from enforcing those orders, such as an 11 p.m. bar and restaurant closing time.
The amended version merely stated “it is the intent of Knox County, through its Commission, to express the desire” that the board’s powers are stripped.
EXCLUSIVE: New Knox County resolution downplays bid to strip health board’s powers
The previous version likely would have violated state law because counties can not overrule a governor’s orders, according to legal staff at the University of Tennessee’s County Technical Assistance Service. The nonpartisan agency is a legal resource for community leaders.
Executive orders issued by Lee over the course of the pandemic have allowed six of Tennessee’s 95 counties – including Knox – to make their own rules about reopening, either to do less or go beyond the governor’s orders. The remaining 89 counties have largely been left to adhere to the state’s Tennessee Pledge recommendations, which does not mandate masks or restrict business hours.
The previous resolution would have, in effect, un-invited itself from the governor’s mandates concerning the pandemic, making the county governed not by the local board of health – comprised of local medical experts, a schools representative and Jacobs – but by the Tennessee Pledge guidelines.
Buuck told Knox News he disagreed with the assessment of the original resolution and adamantly denied it violated state law.
“It does not take away any of the powers of the board of health, period,” he said. “That’s my legal opinion. And I’m the guy that wrote it.”
The original language for the resolution was crafted by Buuck with input from Jacobs and commissioners Justin Biggs and Kyle Ward, who co-sponsored the resolution.
Last week Buuck said his main concern is protecting the county from lawsuits. The resolution, he said, would insure the county follows the state’s lead on pandemic restrictions and the state could be held responsible if any lawsuit arise.
New board of health member
Only eight of the roughly 25 applicants for the citizen member of the board of health stayed the seven hours necessary to get questioned by commission. After three rounds of voting, middle school health teacher and small business owner Ani Roma was selected as a member of the board.
Roma teaches health at Hardin Valley Middle School (and online for Bearden and Halls High Schools) and she and her husband, Ryan, own Dirty Bird Events, an off-road, adventure racing event company.
“I feel like I represent a variety of individuals,” she said after the vote. “I’m a well-rounded applicant as a parent, as a community member, as an educator (and as a business owner).”
The commission took applications through Friday, though it was up to the commission to appoint and narrow down their selection.
Roma will serve on the board and have a vote as other board members do. Also like other members, she will serve four years.
How we got here
Earlier this month the board of health voted to require all restaurants and bars in Knox County to close at 11 p.m. each night. The board approved the restriction in an effort to slow down the spread of COVID-19, especially among young adults who continued to congregate and party without masks.
The board’s decision followed a visit by Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinator. She said when cases are rising — as they had been in Knox County — community leaders must rethink pandemic strategies, including cutting off alcohol consumption, not just sales, at 10 or 11 p.m.
As of Monday, there were 1,602 active cases in Knox County with another 420 probable cases. Thirty-one Knox County residents are currently hospitalized and 83 have died over the course of the pandemic. Seventy-eight of those deaths have occurred since June 30.
Email Tyler Whetstone at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @tyler_whetstone. If you enjoy Tyler’s coverage, support strong local journalism by subscribing.
This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Knox Commission agrees to say it wants to strip the board of health – but move has no power