Commissioners debate role of health board

Sandra ClarkLet's Talk

On the very day (Dec. 21, 2020) that Knoxville hit the top for new Covid cases, the Knox County Commission voted 6-4-1 on first reading to make the county’s Board of Health advisory. No more mask mandates or early closing rules for bars from this bunch.


The meeting went from 5 p.m. until almost 1 a.m. with a two-hour break for zonings. Second (final) reading will be Monday, Jan. 25. If the BOH becomes advisory, then public health decisions would be made by Martha Buchanan M.D., the county’s senior director of public health.

The debate by commissioners was intense. If they hadn’t been on Zoom, fisticuffs might have broken out.

Buchanan, herself recovering from COVID-19, said before the final vote: Several of you have voiced support for me. … Step up and lead. Model the five core actions. Come together and fight this together. If you step up and lead, people who know and trust you will follow you.

  • Yes votes: Beeler, Biggs, Busler, Dailey, Schoonmaker, Ward
  • No votes: Durrett, Hill, Jay, Lundy
  • Pass: Randy Smith

Smith had offered a substitute motion to approve on first reading but postpone the vote on second reading until March. That motion failed. Smith asked his colleagues: “What can we do to unite this community and move forward against this pandemic?”

Terry Hill suggested “there’s a lot of incorrect information on both sides,” but said, “This is no time to change” what the county is doing.

Buchanan jumped into the debate with statistics: Since Dec. 1, Knox County has seen 428 new cases every day and 70 deaths. “We’re averaging 3.3 deaths a day, and that breaks my heart.” Tonight’s debate was “inappropriate,” she said. It’s like arguing over who holds the hose in the face of a massive fire.

Kyle Ward, newly elected from District 4, said his chief concern is mandates being made by an unelected health board. Speakers in support of Ward’s resolution argued that the Board of Health has too much power and lacks empathy with business owners whose hours of operation have been restricted.

Sandra Clark is editor/CEO of Knox TN Today.

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