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Health District up for name change after complaints, confusion

By Bob Conrad

The Washoe County Health District, a county government agency, is seeking to change its name Northern Nevada Public Health.

Elected officials said, “too many people thought WCHD was solely under Washoe County,” according to WCHD Public Information Officer Scott Oxarart. 

That confusion came to a head during the pandemic when angry citizens, many spewing far-right conspiracies about COVID-19, demanded the Washoe Board of County Commissioners defy Gov. Steve Sisolak’s mask mandates and business closures.

They also expected commissioners to oversee and change decisions made by the health district.

The Sparks and Reno councils, and the county commissioners, had limited powers over health measures during the pandemic, and they did not control decisions made by District Health Officer Kevin Dick. 

The health district is governed by its own board of health, which comprises local, elected officials and citizens. It was charged with enforcing state directives during the pandemic.

County officials have repeatedly had to field complaints that should have been directed at the health district.

Confusion reigns

County officials, including health officer Kevin Dick and manager Eric Brown, and WCSD Superintendent Kristen McNeill hold the first of what became regular briefings on COVID-19 on March 9, 2020. This was one of the few held in person. Image: Trevor Bexon / This Is Reno

Criticism of the health district was pervasive even prior to the pandemic. 

A This Is Reno investigation in 2018 revealed health officials were staking out local businesses looking for violations, trash-talking public commenters on texts during meetings and holding up development and construction projects for reasons some alleged were to generate more fees for the agency.

“Projects were getting held up all over town, and the logjam largely resided with the Health District,” Reno Council member Neoma Jardon said at the time.

Sparks Mayor Ed Lawson echoed that statement.

“We’re killing our developers and affordable housing projects because we’re holding up permits for months at a time. It costs everybody—the city and contractors,” he said in 2018.

The agency angered local elected officials to the point where they mulled changing how the health district is governed. They met to discuss concerns in January of 2021. 

That’s when the name change was first discussed. Nearly everyone at the meeting agreed a name change was in order. Ideas discussed were the Truckee Meadows Health District and Northern Nevada Health District. 

“I thought [it was a] good conversation but doing nothing to me isn’t an option and not fair to our community,” Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve said during the meeting. “This pandemic has really highlighted inadequacies. Those existed before, but there wasn’t the political will then. I think there is now.”

No major changes appear to have occurred since – but ongoing disagreements have.

County commissioners were criticized last year for not reappointing a longtime District Board of Health member, a maneuver some saw as a means for commissioners to have more influence over the health district.

“The Washoe County Board of County Commissioners Chair, who is also the vice chair of the DBOH, attempted to appoint a new member to the DBOH without any communication that the Washoe County appointee position was open,” health board member Dr. Reko Danko wrote at the time in an opinion column on This Is Reno.

District in conflict with other agencies

Washoe County Commission Chair Bob Lucey goes maskless at the Dec. 14, 2021 meeting.
Washoe County Commission Chair Bob Lucey goes maskless at the Dec. 14, 2021 meeting.

Health District administrators have also had conflicts with local elected officials. 

The Health District’s James English complained after Washoe County officials selected a COVID-19 testing firm to conduct free tests throughout the community. That firm, according to reporting by Anjeanette Damon for Politico, was found to have conducted thousands of faulty tests, leading to a federal investigation. 

Late last year, Kevin Dick publicly criticized Commissioner Bob Lucey’s refusal to wear a mask.

The health board in April of 2021 criticized the commissioners’ draft plan to reopen businesses.

Meeting scheduled for Friday

Reno, Sparks and Washoe County officials are scheduled to meet Friday at 1 p.m. in a joint governmental meeting to hear about and approve the name change. 

The new name’s tagline: “Serving Reno, Sparks, and Washoe County.”

The change “puts the organization toe-to-toe with Southern Nevada Health District,” a marketing firm indicates in the presentation, which was made public today.

Officials have been meeting since last year to research name options. 

WCHD is “perceived as superseding other regional organizations such as Washoe County or City of Reno / City of Sparks,” the report notes. 

The meeting will also cover, “discussion and possible acceptance of the principles guiding the intent and desired outcome of the regional collaboration opportunities for Fire, EMS, and Dispatch services…”

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