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Editorial: A few questions to consider about West Central District Health Department and the city

Editorial: A few questions to consider about West Central District Health Department and the city

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There are times when the question isn’t whether a proposed action is right or wrong.

It’s whether it makes a difference — or whether someone’s “right” answer might lead to the “wrong” result.

That’s what North Platte’s reorganized City Council will sort out Tuesday regarding whether to continue the “memorandum of understanding” saying the West Central District Health Department has the job of enforcing health regulations within city limits.

It was adopted April 7, in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s because of dissatisfaction with that decision, along with WCDHD’s handling of its duties, that new Mayor Brandon Kelliher is asking whether the council wants him to renegotiate or terminate the accord.

Note that the agreement remains in force until April no matter what. The city must notify WCDHD by Jan. 7 if it intends to cancel rather than let it renew.

You can review the issues more fully elsewhere in today’s Telegraph. We offer the following questions so council members and residents might better determine where either canceling or continuing the agreement might lead.

» First: Who had the authority to enforce health regulations in North Platte before April 7: our city government or the six-county West Central district?

Shannon Vanderheiden, the latter’s executive director, says WCDHD — and ultimately Gov. Pete Ricketts — already had that authority under state laws passed two decades ago setting up Nebraska’s system of district health departments.

If so, it might not matter whether the city’s deal with WCDHD lives on.

But the deal’s own language — not to mention state law — indicates it does.

The agreement’s first paragraph says WCDHD “is the lead agency responsible for protection of the public” regarding “communicable disease, illness and poisoning in Lincoln County” — “except for incorporated cities and villages within such counties.”

Section 71-501 of state law says likewise.

Therefore, the deal continues, the city “desires the assistance” of WCDHD “and agrees to give control” in protecting city residents against contagious diseases to the health district.

Sounds like the city gave up something.

» If so, what did it give up? And if the city cancels the deal, what must it legally do to ensure residents are protected as well as possible against COVID-19 or some future pandemic?

That leads to another state law — Section 16-238 — and the ordinance defining North Platte’s Board of Health, born in 1897 but dormant for nearly 50 years.

This board shut the city down at the start of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. City code and state law define its membership as the mayor, the City Council president, the police chief, a physician and one at-large member.

They also agree on its duty (in the city code’s words) “to enact (health) rules and regulations, which shall have the full force and effect of law, to safeguard the health of the residents of the city” and to enforce those regulations.

There’s no reference to whether the City Council could override the Board of Health’s decisions. The ultimate power would belong to that board, like in 1918.

Note that just two of the Board of Health’s five members are elected officials. WCDHD’s 12-member board includes six elected officials: a county commissioner from each member county.

» If the WCDHD deal is canceled, must the city then revive the Board of Health? Regardless, must it then take on the costs in staff time — and payroll dollars — to do what the health district does?

That brings up a question raised when the council first debated the agreement April 7: Would it shield the city from lawsuits claiming it didn’t do enough to fight COVID-19 or some other disease?

The council essentially agreed the city would be less liable, and its residents better off, to give WCDHD the job of protecting public health in North Platte.

If they gave up anything.

We must say that WCDHD has not been as responsive to local questions and concerns as residents or this newspaper would prefer.

Having said that, one must also acknowledge the immense pressure faced by the district’s 10-person staff in facing challenges no one has faced in 102 years.

Does it matter whether the city’s deal with WCDHD continues?

Just be aware that the obvious answer, whatever you think it is, might or might not yield the result you want.

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