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Home > Featured > Possible changes to Washoe County Health Board draw questions, criticism

Possible changes to Washoe County Health Board draw questions, criticism

By Jeri Chadwell
Published: Last Updated on

Elected officials on Wednesday will meet to consider ways in which they might increase their influence over the Washoe County District Board of Health as well as possibly make changes to the structure of the Washoe County Health District (WCHD).

The health boardcomprises of seven members, two from each city and two from the county and one additional appointed member, who must be a physician licensed to practice medicine in Nevada. One member from each of the cities and the county is also a sitting elected official within their jurisdiction. The other three members—one for each city and one for the county—are not elected officials.

The board’s seven members oversee the WCHD, which was created in 1972 by an interlocal agreement, and is tasked with efforts surrounding public and environmental health and food safety, air quality and—for the last 10 months—the COVID-19 pandemic. The last time the agreement governing the operation of the health district and its board was revised was 1993.

Tomorrow, the Reno City Council, Sparks City Council and Washoe County Commission will hold a joint meeting to discuss four possible options for changing the structure and processes of the WCHD and its governing board.

Among the options are creating an appeals board, establishing a new health district, “packing” the board by increasing the number of its members or making changes to the agreement under which the board operates.

Several of these options—including creating an appeals board or packing the board, should that include adding more elected officials to it—might not be permissible under current Nevada statutes. At the least, several options might require action by the Nevada Legislature.

Staff has listed the final option, revising the board’s agreement, as the only feasible one. The move to even examine possibilities for changing the board amid the global COVID-19 pandemic has drawn criticism from some.

Reno City Councilmember Jenny Brekhus said she would like to know what problems the possible changes to the health district and its board are meant to address.

“Before you come up with a solution, you need to identify what the problem is—and, so, I didn’t see that in the staff report, did you?” she said. “I think it’s always best if it’s in the staff report why we’re having a meeting, what problem we’re trying to solve and illustrations of that. I didn’t see that.”

Brekhus added that the timing in the middle of a pandemic is a concern for her too.

“I hear from constituents, you know, a lot right now,” she said. “They want the public health focus to be on shots in arms. I am not hearing that they want us to be talking about subsections of a 30-year-old agreement about how the board of health is governed.”

Ed Lawson

Sparks Mayor Ed Lawson, who requested WCHD’s structure be reviewed during the previous joint meeting held Nov. 18, 2020, told News 4-Fox 11’s Ben Margiott on Monday that the meeting is not intended to initiate a “power grab” by the cities and county. He said he’s interested in establishing an appeals process for people and businesses to appeal decisions made by the health district.

“In the past five, six years, we’ve seen some of the glaring errors of the way the [health board] is set up,” Lawson told Margiott.

Lawson also said he’s interested in changing the WCHD’s name to the “Northern Nevada Health District,” in an effort to combat the impression that the health district is overseen by Washoe County and its board of commissioners.

The Health District has been criticized for years, such as among small business owners who say its regulations are overly bureaucratic, subjective and onerous, to others who say the district has too much overreach into turf covered by other jurisdictions.

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