A better way to organize Licking County Health Board oversight
Editor’s note: This is the second part of two columns on the topic. Read the first one here.
Looking to learn more about the group that that controls seven appointments to the Licking County Board of Health, I submitted a written request to Health Commissioner Chad Brown on March 21, 2021, for some public records of the District Advisory Council, namely its bylaws and the minutes from three meetings. I received the minutes from just one meeting.
The Attorney General requires all government and public bodies to follow the so-called Sunshine Laws. These laws mandate open meetings and require that offices respond promptly to requests for public records, no questions asked. Mr. Brown’s limited response violated the Public Records Act and exposed yet another legal infraction: he did not have DAC bylaws on file.
DAC President David Miller told him that the Council did not have bylaws because it needed only follow what the ORC says. Ironically, the ORC reads: The council shall adopt bylaws governing its meetings, the transaction of business, and voting procedures.
In short, the DAC is not in compliance.
Speaking with Brown, I urged him to lead the DAC in drafting bylaws. Later, I shared research from newspapers around Ohio showing that Licking County is not alone. Other districts have also scrambled to comply with this requirement.
Cumbersome due to their size and composition, and meeting infrequently, DACs are predisposed to malfunction. Routinely they fail to achieve a quorum, specified as a majority. In March 2020, only 11 of 40 members attended the Licking County meeting (the quorum is 21). Similarly, the Jefferson County Board of Health recently discussed the need for bylaws when hoping to encourage better attendance (See “Mougianis Appointed to Jefferson County Health Board.” Herald-Star, Jan. 7, 2021). As a mixed bag of elected officials gathering only once a year, the DAC especially needs a procedural roadmap to help members anticipate their responsibility.
Aside from these breaches of law, the process of making appointments to the Board of Health in Licking County is not well regulated. Those who wish to serve on the Board or to nominate someone face a brick wall. The application process is opaque, the timing and location of the meeting not well advertised. (See “Health District Advisory Council Appoints Two Health Board Members,” Newark Advocate, March 18, 2019.) A minority make nominations orally at the annual meeting, seeking a vote of confirmation.
A comparison with the website of the Franklin County Public Health Department suggests a different approach, an open competition for positions based on merit. A full-page call to submit letters of interest and qualifications appears on the FCPH website well ahead of the meeting. The DAC vets written applications to select the most qualified candidates.
Making appointments secretly and using an informal “old boys’ network” undermines public trust in our Board of Health, inviting suspicion that maintaining control over who serves is more important than selecting the most qualified applicants.
At a minimum, the Commissioner of Health shares responsibility with the Board for bringing the District into compliance with the Sunshine Laws and the Ohio Revised Code. Going beyond that, following a transparent and rational process of making appointments to the Board would be a big step toward building the community’s trust.
Rita Kipp is president of the League of Women Voters of Licking County