Monday, March 20, 2023
March 20, 2023

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Cowlitz County Board of Health approves bylaws that conflict with state law


LONGVIEW — The Cowlitz County Board of Health Tuesday approved bylaws inconsistent with state law, further restricting who can join as citizen members.

The board has been working with legal staff on the new bylaws since July when the three citizen members joined the county commissioners on the expanded board.

David Berger, with the county Prosecuting Attorney’s office, raised concerns about language requiring all citizen members to have no fiduciary obligation to any health facility, health agency or a conflict of interest.

State law requires the non-elected citizen members be selected from three categories — provider, public health consumer and other community stakeholder. In counties that include a federally recognized Indian tribe’s reservation, trust lands or service organization, the board must include a tribal representative. An appointee from the Cowlitz Indian Tribe hasn’t yet joined Cowlitz County’s board.

The state law prohibits the public health consumer from having a fiduciary obligation to a health facility or other health agency or a material financial interest in the rendering of health services. It doesn’t include the same prohibitions for members representing health providers, other community stakeholders or tribes.

As written, the county board’s bylaws would prevent, for example, a currently employed doctor from joining the board, Berger said.

“You can’t be more strict in saying that every single person who is on the board of health can’t have any financial interest in medical services because if you do that it is inconsistent with state law, and you’re excluding individuals who are entitled under state law to be board members,” he said.

Board Chair Kelly Lane said the language was applied to all citizen members to be fair.

Commissioner Arne Mortensen said while contrary to the attorney’s recommendation, the language is an effort to get board members who are not involved with the system, who represent the citizens not the system or a status quo. If the board needs expert information, it can get that advice from someone who is not a member, he added.

“What’s important is we don’t want someone on the board who has to cast a vote where there may be a semblance of conflict of interest,” Mortensen said.

Berger said the bylaws also don’t address what happens if a member violates them, and the ambiguity could leave the board open to a wrongful termination claim.

No matter how laws are structured, the county is subject to a lawsuit, so trying to cover every circumstance doesn’t make sense, Mortensen said.

The board can amend the bylaws at a future meeting, Lane said.

Board member Mary Jane Melink said she was not comfortable moving forward with the bylaws against the attorney’s recommendation.

Lindy Campbell, who seconded the motion to accept the bylaws, abstained from the vote because she wanted to talk to the attorney more after he confirmed the language is not compatible with state law.

The board approved the bylaws in a 3-1 vote, with Rick Dahl, Mortensen and Lane in favor. Commissioner Dennis Weber was absent.