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The standoff between Gallatin County and the city of Bozeman over a new agreement governing the health board and health department is rooted in questions over how the deal distributes some powers.

The two governments have been trying to work out a new interlocal health agreement for over a year. The agreement would create a governing body overseeing the health board and department — a requirement of a new state law — and include Belgrade.

An earlier conflict over the makeup of the governing body was resolved, and a draft agreement has been signed by the county and Belgrade. But the city of Bozeman is withholding its approval, and city and county officials have gone back and forth over the way powers are distributed.

A new agreement needs to be in place by July 1. On Tuesday, Gallatin County Commissioner Zach Brown told city commissioners the county would move ahead with an agreement excluding Bozeman if the city didn’t provide an answer by Friday. City and county officials were set to meet privately Friday, but information on the outcome of that meeting was not available before deadline.

Mayor Cyndy Andrus did not return a call seeking comment Friday. Earlier this week she told the Chronicle the governments were working through a number of general issues.

Questions city officials sent to the county last month about the agreement were sent to the Chronicle by city spokesperson Dani Hess. They include whether the governing body is a separate legal entity, who has the management and supervisory authority over the health department, how the health department will be funded and what specific responsibilities will rest solely with the county.

The Gallatin County attorney’s office and the city attorney’s office worked through the questions and the city suggested edits to the health agreement. The county declined all suggested edits and responded to the city’s questions in an April 29 letter to the city.

One of the proposed edits was to make the health board a separate entity in the agreement. If the health board were to be a separate legal entity, it would have the ability to retain its own legal counsel, fund itself, enter contracts, adopt regulations and set fees and to hire and supervise staff, the county stated in its letter.

The county rejected the edit, saying some of those authorities were stricken by the changes in state law, because it does not provide clear and transparent accountability and goes against the county’s “commitment to professional management principles.”

Another flashpoint was on the duties of the governing body. The county contended that the proposed edits from the city would expand the authority of the governing body to appoint and manage the local health officer — meaning officials from three different government entities would be the health officer’s boss.

The county’s position is that the health officer is an employee of the county, and that it wouldn’t make sense for the governing body to manage the position.

Former Gallatin City-County Health Officer Matt Kelley has raised concerns with the agreement that are similar to the city’s. Kelley spoke against the agreement in March when the county signed it.

He then sent a letter to the Bozeman City Commission addressing the issues he raised during the county commission meeting.

In that letter, he said that his main concern was that the draft health agreement is in “direct conflict with state law” and that the county commission is trying to take over duties and authorities given to the health board and health officer by state law.

Specifically, Kelley took issue with a provision in the health agreement outlining county responsibilities separate from duties given to the health board and governing body.

The particular components he addressed in his letter were the county hiring, supervising and managing health department employees, the county enforcing violations of public health rules on behalf of the health board and the county approving all contracts and the budget for the health department.

State law indicates that the health board still has the power to accept money and contracts.

Kelley said Friday that the county is saying that it needs control of the money because it is their responsibility, which he agreed with.

However, he said there is a difference between the county taking responsibility and deciding what funding the health board can take.

Kelley also took issue with the Gallatin County attorney’s office representing both the county commission and the health board, viewing it as a conflict of interest.

Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert said in a previous interview that he and Erin Arnold, deputy Gallatin County attorney, had discussed the issue of legal representation with health board chair Becky Franks and vice chair Buck Taylor in May of last year.

Lambert said that the pair were fine with the county attorney’s office continuing to represent the board.

If the city does not sign the agreement, it would be required under state law to create its own health department.

In an interview Friday with the Chronicle, Lambert said the agreement is legally sound.

“Our legal reasoning is sound, and we are looking forward to concluding our business by having an interlocal agreement that, at present, would involve the city of Belgrade and Gallatin County,” Lambert said.

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Alex Miller is the county and state government reporter and can be reached at amiller@dailychronicle.com or by phone at 406-582-2648.

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