Legislators urge Douglas County commissioners to cancel Tri-County Health contract

Though the health department's stay-at-home order has been rescinded, the request stands

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In a letter addressed to the Douglas County commissioners, state legislators representing the community have urged the board to end its contract with the Tri-County Health Department after the agency issued a stay-at-home order March 25.

The letter, signed by six Republican lawmakers, calls the order a “heavy-handed application of governmental power.”

While Tri-County's order — aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 — has since been rescinded and replaced by a statewide measure, state Sen. Chris Holbert, of Parker, and state Rep. Patrick Neville, of Castle Rock, said the request in the letter still stands.

“An unelected bureaucrat jumped in front of our county commissioners and our governor and that's just wrong,” Holbert said. “That's not how a representative republic is supposed to work.”

Holbert says while he personally agrees with the stay-at-home measure, he disagrees with the fact that it was decided without the full support of the three-member board of county commissioners. The commissioners are Lora Thomas, Abe Laydon and Roger Partridge.

“What we were frustrated with was that (Tri-County Executive Director John Douglas) is not an elected official and our understanding (was) that two of the three commissioners did not support the order,” Holbert said. “Because we are a representative republic, our perspective is that it should have been respected.”

In addition to Douglas County, Tri-County serves Adams and Arapahoe counties, giving the agency a coverage area of about 1.5 million people.

Under state statute 25-1-506, a public health board has the right to declare direction such as the stay-at-home order.

Neville however, has voiced disapproval of the order overall.

“This (order) is outrageous and will only lead to less social distancing as people panic buy,” according to a tweet from Neville. 

Neville found it “absolutely outrageous,” that a "board of bureaucrats" would impose such an order, he said in an interview.

“If I had proposed a bill that did the exact same thing in the Legislature, there would be a long, drawn-out process, there would be public testimony, we'd have to get input from multiple individuals,” he said.

Neville's hope is that the commissioners will soon reconsider their relationship with Tri-County, he said.

“I've lost all faith in Tri-County Health if they're going to do that beyond the scope of whatever elected officials agree with,” he said.

While the letter focused on the fact that two commissioners disagreed with the measure, there was no formal vote by the county board. Instead, there was a more informal understanding.

Commissioner Lora Thomas said she didn't have adequate time or metrics to get on board with the stay-at-home order.

“I just felt I needed more discussion,” she said. “I did not have enough information to justify in my mind the freedoms we were taking away from our citizens.”

Thomas said she will consider ending the county's relationship with the health department but not during the current crisis.

"I know there will be a discussion eventually about what best serves the needs of our community," she said. "I can tell you the day to have that discussion is not today."

Commissioner Abe Laydon said he has no interest in leaving Tri-County right now. He supported the stay-at-home order from the health department, he said.

"I'm not listening to demagogues, I'm listening to the public health experts," he said. "Based on what we're hearing from experts, when people stay at home it really reduces the transmission."

In a comment released through a county spokesperson, Commissioner Roger Partridge said pursing a new health department would require extensive effort.

“No doubt, that would be a huge undertaking due to the expertise and state requirements to fill that role for our communities," he said. 

He did not comment further on whether he supported the stay-at-home measure.

Douglas, the Tri-County leader, said commissioners expressed to him that even if they didn't all agree, they supported the statutory right of the board of health to declare such an order.

“I'm disappointed that the legislators chose to communicate that way,” he said about the letter. “The laws under which we operate are laws the Legislature passed."

In addition to Holbert and Neville, the letter was signed by state Sen. Jim Smallwood, of Parker; state Rep. Kim Ransom, of Acres Green; state Rep. Kevin Van Winkle, of Highlands Ranch; and state Rep. Mark Baisley, of Roxborough Park.

In the letter, the lawmakers urged county commissioners to align with El Paso County Health or create a new health agency.

Douglas said legislators should discuss whether Tri-County made the right decision — or if they should have the right to make such an order at all — once the pandemic is over.

“But gosh in the middle of a pandemic?” he said. “Can we be sort of on the same page?” 

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