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The tension over the decisions made by local health boards and health officers during the coronavirus pandemic has reached the state Legislature.

Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, presented House Bill 121 to the House Local Government Committee on Thursday.

If the bill passes, health boards would no longer be able to adopt local health rules but would propose them. Approval would come from local elected officials. Those elected officials would also be able to amend health officers’ orders given during states of emergency, like the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m not questioning the decisions that are made. I, myself, am an advocate of public health officials. I believe that they’ve done yeoman’s work in this area,” Bedey said. “However, in order for us to preserve the legitimacy of the work that they’re doing now and the work that they do in the future, I think it’s essential that we restore accountability through our elected officials.”

Gallatin City-County Health Officer Matt Kelley said he opposed the bill because it would create a confusing system.

“What happens when a city board disagrees with a county board on the regulation in question?” he said. “What happens when one or the other disagrees about the need for enforcement or about the way to enforce?”

He also said the bill could create extra work and liability for elected officials.

“Do county commissioners want the responsibility for handling proposals for septic systems and septic tanks?” Kelley said.

Eve Franklin, a former Democratic state lawmaker from Helena, said health boards often include elected officials and some members are also appointed by elected officials.

For instance, the Gallatin City-County Board of Health has nine members — a county commissioner, three members chosen by the county commission, a city commissioner, three members selected by the city commission and one member appointed jointly. Local elected officials can also dismiss members or reconfigure the board.

“I served in the Legislature for 17 years, and, to my fellow legislators present and former, we have to admit that we are subject to pressure that isn’t always appropriate,” Franklin said. “And sometimes we like to think we’re immune but we do make decisions because we may respond to constituents through a political lens.”

Likewise, Dash Rodman, co-owner of MAP Brewing Company in Bozeman, said he worked with a Gallatin County group to develop guidelines for reopening businesses safely last spring and said the process worked well because it was based on science and data and prioritized public health rather than politics.

Cascade County Commissioner Jane Weber, who is also a local health board member, said requiring elected officials to approve health board decisions could slow the response to health emergencies.

“In times of emergency, quick action is needed to prevent the spread of communicable diseases or other issues such as a bioterrorism event where a board of health needs to act rapidly and not have a two-step process of making a recommendation and then requiring time for the governing body or bodies … to make decisions on isolation, closure or quarantine,” she said.

Those who supported House Bill 121 on Thursday were largely from businesses and said the rules implemented throughout the coronavirus pandemic, such as the lockdown in the spring, should have gone through elected officials.

“Small businesses and small employers must have an opportunity for redress with an elected body,” said John Iverson with the Montana Tavern Association.

The committee did not take immediate action on the bill, which is among several that are being considered in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Perrin Stein can be reached at pstein@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2648.