Proposal to disband Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department fails after stunning split vote

Tuesday night's Pierce County Council meeting came to a shocking conclusion after a tense and emotional seven hours primarily discussing the council's move to disband the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. 

The ordinance did not pass after a split 3-3 vote. The councilmember who tipped that way was none other than the ordinance sponsor herself, Pam Roach. 

Her "no" vote was clearly shocking to other council members who were heard saying, "Wait, what ... What's happening?" after Roach voted in opposition of the very ordinance she sponsored. 

Her decision followed four hours of public comment that overwhelmingly opposed the council disbanding the joint city-county health agency. It also came after a political standoff between the Pierce County Council and Gov. Jay Inslee, who signed a proclamation this week pausing efforts to terminate a health district or a city-county health department during a public health emergency. His order threatens criminal penalties for counties that don't abide.  

The meeting started by council members immediately going into executive session to receive legal advice from county attorneys. 

After the executive session, the county council amended the proposal to reorganize the health department. Council member Marty Campbell said the amendment still violated the governor’s proclamation.

RELATED: Inslee: 'Taking the politics out of public health' over future of Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department

Council member Derek Young said he believed, if approved, the new version of the proposal would lead to a long legal battle. Members also heard public comment on the amendment.

Earlier in the meeting, Councilmember Connie Ladenburg read the governor’s order to her colleagues before excusing herself, saying legally she would not take part going against the state.

“I cannot be a party to having any kind of action taken on this matter. I believe that it places the county at risk or even at risk of criminal action against us,” said Ladenburg.

Q13 News has been following the proposal to reorganize the health department since it was first introduced in early December. The proposal would have dissolved an agreement between the City of Tacoma and the county on a joint health department. The agreement was established back in 1972. 

Council member Roach, who sponsored the proposal and later voted against it, said the idea is not to get rid of the health department altogether, but rather have experienced health officials report to elected leaders instead of an appointed council with minimal health experience.

Roach, who is retiring at the end of the year, said she believes this would give the people in Pierce County better representation and a stronger voice in their public health needs. Then she voted against the ordinance. 

RELATED: Public voices opposition of proposal to dissolve Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department

On Twitter, County Executive Bruce Dammeier took a jab at Inslee. 

“TPCHD has said they will stay focused on COVID no matter what, but apparently Inslee doesn’t believe them. His order threatens criminal sanctions against Pierce County elected officials for even talking about local health department changes in 2022," Dammeier said. 

The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department issued a statement thanking Inslee for intervening, “to ensure Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department can focus on bringing COVID-19 under control, for all Pierce County residents.”