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The Montana Supreme Court rules on a dispute between the city and county board of health

The Montana Supreme Court issued an opinion on June 4 affirming the district court’s decision regarding the local governing board, the Cascade County City-County Health Department.

At the heart of the issue is a disagreement between Cascade County and the city of Great Falls over the composition of the governing body, as required by changes in state law in 2021 in response to the COVID pandemic.

The city and county have an agreement that governs the operation of the Cascade County City-County Health Department, which has not been changed since 1975.

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In the fall of 2021, the city and county approved a temporary agreement to make the county commission, with one city commissioner as a non-voting member, the designated governing body.

That agreement ran through June 2022, as the city and county continued to work on a new agreement to operate CCHD.

The city and county continued to disagree over the composition of the governing body, and the case was moved to a district court in 2022.

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District Court Judge Elizabeth Best issued an opinion on August 29, 2022 that state law does not prohibit a city commissioner from serving on the governing body of the City-County Health Department.

Cascade County appealed the district court ruling to the Montana Supreme Court that fall.

The county argued that the governing body should be an elected body and that it should be the County Commission since they fund the majority of the CCHD. They also argued that a city official cannot make decisions about the larger county population and should not be a full voting member of the health board.

The city argued that the elected bodies could designate the board of health as the governing body and essentially maintain the status quo, or that the governing body could consist of county commissioners with a city commissioner as a voting member.

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In her 2022 decision, District Court Judge Elizabeth Best ruled that the law requires an administrative body, which is identified by the 1975 interlocal agreement between the county and the city.

By law, Best cannot be prohibited from having a city commissioner serve on the governing body.

She wrote that the existing interlocal agreement established the Board of Health as the governing body and that agreement required the mayor, or his/her designee, to serve on the board.

Writing the court’s opinion, Judge Dirk Sandefur said the Legislature has long authorized joint city-county health departments and boards of health to avoid unnecessary duplication of local government services and expenditures, thereby reducing the burden on taxpayers .

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The language of the 2021 law shows that the Legislature was certainly aware of the likely pre-2021 existence of consolidated city and county boards of health, and that their pre-2021 city-county agreements therefore effectively legally charged with full responsibility. scope of authority previously granted to local boards of health” under previous laws, Sandefur wrote.

If the Legislature had intended to impose other requirements or restrictions on “elected city and county governing bodies with respect to the continued maintenance or operation of their pre-existing consolidated city and county planning boards, it certainly could have done so in the language” of the 2021 laws, Sandefur wrote. “Here there is no dispute or basis for contestation that the 1975 Agreement was and remains a valid and enforceable contract under generally applicable contract law… as such, the 1975 Agreement is also an ‘interlocal agreement’.

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The county’s argument that a city board of health member does not have the jurisdiction to approve health and safety decisions affecting the entire county ignores the Montana Constitution, which allows government agencies to cooperate in the exercise of any function, power or responsibility whatsoever, without regard to otherwise. applicable jurisdictional boundaries for cities and counties, as long as not prohibited by law or charter, Sandefur wrote.

“Contrary to the province’s assertion, a comprehensive statutory scheme specifically grants participating cities the statutory authority to participate, through consolidated city and county boards of health, in the adoption and enforcement of local health and safety regulations that govern affect the entire province, without regard to the jurisdiction of the city and the province. boundaries. County residents who reside outside the jurisdictional boundaries of a city participating in a city-county board of health agreement are neither disenfranchised nor subject to unlawful city regulation because the cross-jurisdictional regulatory authority exercised by consolidated boards of health between the city and the province and the participating elected city council bodies and constituent members are authorized both constitutionally and statutorily; City and county boards of health are established only by mutual consent of the city and county’s elected governing bodies; City and county boards of health necessarily consist of members equally appointed by and serving at the pleasure of the elected governing bodies of cities and counties,” Sandefur wrote.

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In March, county commissioners voted to appoint him to the health board.

The provincial seat on the board has been vacant since April 2021.

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In 2021, County Commissioner Joe Briggs told The Electric that the county was not filling their vacancy on the board of health as the county and city discussed a governing body for the health department due to changes in state law following the COVID pandemic.

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At the June 5 meeting, the health board discussed the court ruling and Briggs said, “One piece of the puzzle has now been answered. That does not alter the fact that we have to look at the operating agreement.”

Carey Ann Haight, chief of the county attorney’s civil division, said she will discuss the ruling with the county commissioners and then the city to determine next steps.

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