Nov 4, 2021 - Politics

City officials bash health hiring bill

The exterior of the brick building of the Lentz Public Health Center.

Lentz Public Health Center. Photo: Adam Tamburin/Axios

State legislation approved over the weekend would change the way Metro has been hiring its top health official. It's the latest battlefront in Nashville's perpetual dispute with the Republican-led state government.

Why it matters: The change could reshape Nashville's response to public health crises. The bill also grants the governor exclusive jurisdiction to issue public health orders during a pandemic.

  • There were clear differences in how Nashville Mayor John Cooper and the city health department handled pandemic response compared to Lee's administration, including strict mask mandates and business restrictions.

Driving the news: Under the sweeping legislation, Nashville's mayor would submit up to three finalists for a new health director, but the appointment would then be made by the Tennessee health commissioner.

  • The Metro board of health currently hires the health director, typically in consultation with the mayor. The board earlier this year picked Dr. Gill Wright to lead the department.
  • Cooper spokesperson Andrea Fanta criticized the legislation for "undermining" local control. "The last 18 months showed us just how essential local, trusted evidence-based health expertise was in Nashville," she tells Axios.

What they're saying: Dr. Alex Jahangir, who led Nashville's pandemic response task force and serves on the city's health board, tells Axios that one thing the state got right in its pandemic response was preserving local governments' ability to craft their own responses.

  • "The choice of a health director for our county is a decision that should be made by those who have a thorough understanding of the needs of our county, specifically the mayor and members of the board of health," Jahangir says.

The other side: An existing state law technically granted the commissioner power to appoint local health directors. But the practice hasn't played out that way. Instead, the commissioner has been informally consulted during the hiring process.

  • Health Department spokesperson Sarah Tanksley tells Axios the newly approved legislation "is formalizing a previously informal process." For example, Tanksley said the department was "aware" of Wright's recent appointment and "had no objection."

What's next: Lee said earlier this week he's reviewing the Republican-sponsored bills.


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