SHELBY COUNTY, Tenn. — The battle over health department powers continues.
During a trip to Collierville high school, Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton called heath officials “bureaucrats” as he made the case for limiting some health departments' authority.
This week, Shelby County Health Director Alisa Haushalter defended the agency’s authority.
“We are very visible because of the pandemic,” said Haushalter. “But the public needs to understand that local public health authorities including the six metros actually use that authority every day to make sure that we have a safe and healthy community for all people.”
Speaker Sexton said he heard a lot of frustration from people and elected officials from across the state about varying degrees of restrictions from the six independent health departments, including Shelby County, during the pandemic.
“Right now, the elected officials are in the advisory role and the health department is the one making the decisions and it needs to be flipped,” said House Speaker Sexton.
Sexton said he is preparing legislation to scale back the power of the Shelby County Health Department and the five other independently run agencies.
It comes a week after the governor relaxed restrictions on Tennessee’s other 89 counties, leaving the most populous counties untouched.
These six departments have been independent for decades.
He said a task force is reviewing this autonomy as well as the governor’s emergency powers.
Sexton said there needs to be more oversight from the general assembly.
“We elect the elected leaders we don’t elect the bureaucrats and I think the bureaucrats can serve in an advisory role,” said Sexton. “I think they can still offer their advice and their interpretation, I think we need to have the elected officials have the final determination about which direction they want to go.”
Dr. Haushalter said Speaker Sexton hasn’t talked with her about this legislation but she’s open to a conversation. She said her department uses this authority every day to keep the community safe, not just during a pandemic.
“That includes our ability to shut down facilities pose a threat to the community, our ability to isolate or quarantine individuals who have infections TB or to shut down a hotel or motel that may have legionella or some other infectious disease in a timely matter to make sure we have a safe community,” she said.
Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris said he hasn’t heard from Sexton either, and he believes any conversation about restructuring these departments should include all the area mayors.
Speaker Sexton said if he could get a special session, he would push for a bill to limit independent health department as soon as possible
But he said the proposal will likely have to wait until January when the General Assembly is back in session.
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