With just three months to go until the November election, an impending divorce between Douglas County and the Tri-County Health Department over a mask mandate has become a key issue in the campaigns for two open seats on the Douglas County Board of Commissioners.
The board currently consists of three Republicans. Commissioner Abe Laydon's seat isn't up until 2022; Commissioner Roger Partridge is term-limited, and there are two challengers for that slot. Incumbent Lora Thomas also faces a challenger.
“I think it’s foolhardy," Darien Wilson, the Highlands Ranch Democrat running to unseat Thomas, says of the board's decision to withdraw from the regional health department that Douglas County has belonged to for over a half-century. "I think it is very politically motivated and it’s about talking to their base. They are not looking to scientific expertise." A small-business owner, Wilson wants to keep Douglas County in the Tri-County Health fold.
"This is part of a bigger narrative that Douglas County isn’t a toddler anymore," counters Thomas, a former member of the Colorado State Patrol and also a resident of Highlands Ranch. "When we joined Tri-County Health in 1966, we had 5,000 residents. We now have 370,000. ... It is time for us to stand on our own two feet. Through the evolution, it’s just natural to evolve to have a health department that meets our needs."
Although the tension between Douglas County and Tri-County Health goes back decades, things came to a head on July 9, when the Board of Health for the Tri-County Health Department voted 5 to 4 in favor of a mask mandate for Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, all of which fall under the department's jurisdiction. The mandate allowed for counties to opt out their unincorporated areas and for individual municipalities to opt out.
Instead, the Douglas County commissioners decided to opt out altogether and form a new health department for the county. On July 10, the Douglas County attorney gave the required year's notice to the Tri-County Health Department that the county intended to leave the partnership. The three commissioners said they were concerned that Douglas County had been included in Tri-County's mandate, despite the fact that John Douglas, the executive director of Tri-County, had recommended that Douglas County be excluded from the mask mandate order unless the county chose to opt in.
Since then, Governor Jared Polis has enacted a statewide mask mandate, which trumped Tri-County's order. But it didn't erase the dissension in Douglas County.
George Teal, a Republican and current member of the Castle Rock City Council who's running for Partridge's seat, is enthusiastic about Douglas County's declaration of independence from Tri-County. "I’m very excited that they made that move," he says of the current board of commissioners. "It really motivates me to win this seat in November, so I can participate in that process and bring that element of our county governance under local control."
On the other hand, Lisa Neal-Graves, a Democrat, lawyer and Parker resident also vying for that seat, doesn't buy the idea that this move will benefit Douglas County residents. "It’s less about the concern of their health and welfare and more about the political expediencies of the platforms that they want to push forward. That, I think, is an atrocity," she says.
Thomas argues that Douglas County can eliminate some duplicate services offered by both the county and Tri-County Health. "This will be a way to really make sure that we are providing services that our citizens use," she says, suggesting that ending overlap will save money, too.
But that's not the conclusion that Douglas County reached back in 2003, when the county commissioned a study to explore the possibility of withdrawing from Tri-County.
The results showed that "if they were to establish their own health department, it would cost them three times as much money, and it would also mean that they would have to redevelop a whole health department from scratch, which would take years," says Richard Vogt, the Tri-County Health Department executive director from 2001 to 2013.
Just the threat of withdrawal could be a negotiating tactic for Douglas County, Thomas suggests. "There’s an incentive for Tri-County to work with us," she says. "Because we want services. We just want the control of those services coming from Douglas County residents, not Adams County representatives." She envisions an arrangement in which Douglas County would have its own Board of Health but still use the services of Tri-County, removed from its board.
Teal likes that idea. "I can completely see a service agreement with Tri-County to get started, and I would hope that the board of Tri-County would be willing to entertain a cafeteria plan for that," he says. "I’d like to pick and choose and make sure that the services really reflect the wants, the needs and values of Douglas County."
Vogt is skeptical that such an agreement would be possible. "It just does not exist throughout the U.S.," he says of Thomas's proposed arrangement. "It needs to be an agreeable agreement between the entities, so that everybody feels like they are being treated fairly. I’m talking about all three counties. This is not a situation where it’s a pick-and-choose-type scenario."
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Current executive director John Douglas says he's open to at least exploring that option, though he notes that all of the counties as well as Tri-County's leadership would have to be on board with the idea. "It may be that we could not reach an arrangement that would either be deemed fair by all parties or was operational," Douglas explains.
Neal-Graves thinks that Douglas County should have looked into how realistic this option was before it made the decision to withdraw from Tri-County. "This doesn’t have to be a ten-year process," she says. "Give people the opportunity to be heard. And then articulate what the plan is to roll it out if you are going to make a change."
So far, Douglas County hasn't offered any updates on the process. "Our focus today and in the foreseeable future is on the collaborative continuity of public health services delivery to Douglas County citizens and business community with Tri-County Health as our health department, while maximizing governance and policy decision autonomy and without detrimental impact to Tri-County Health or those we collectively serve," says county spokesperson Wendy Manitta Holmes.
And John Douglas stresses that Tri-County's staff will continue serving not just Adams and Arapahoe counties, but Douglas County until its withdrawal is official next July. "We are absolutely still serving Douglas County as a health department," he says. "We consider that to be our obligation."