INDIANAPOLIS– Should a local health department be able to override local elected officials during a pandemic? A bill at the Indiana statehouse says no.
Senate Bill 5 only pertains to times of declared public emergencies like the one we are in now.
Those in favor of it say the legislation will stand the test of time but those against it fear it will stand in the way of safety.
Right now, in Indiana, unelected local health department officials have the power to shut down businesses if they aren’t following pandemic safety measures. We’ve seen it happen across the state and some lawmakers have a problem with it.
“There’s no elected official that is accountable to any of those decisions and that is just not right,” said State Sen. Ron Alting, a co-author of SB 5.
This proposal grants local elected officials oversight on the decision. If someone appeals, that business will get a 15 day stay before the local health department order kicks in.
“But the county commissioners can act quickly,” explained Tom Murtaugh, a Tippecanoe County Commissioner and the Legislative Chair of the Indiana Association of County Commissioners “We can say we decide not to hear that appeal.”
If so, the business has to obey the health department. If elected local leaders wait to make a decision, that’s where things could get tricky.
“In the name of transparency or public input or things along those lines, you are just going to delay the process, you’re going to end up harming the public health of some people so that’s why I cannot support the bill,” said Democratic State Rep. Matt Pierce of Bloomington.
Murtaugh said he has faith local elected leaders will work with the health department in the name of safety and speed up the process if recommended.
“We would have no intention of taking action without getting feedback from the board of health, health officer and other health professionals within our community,” said Murtaugh.
Sen. Alting said he believes there could be a compromise to shorten the length of the decision window.
“They’ll find some middle ground on that and it will come out accordingly,” said Alting.
He said it would be a shame for this bill not to pass because no one person should be making these decisions.
Alting believes elected officials are experts on the economy and health officials are the experts on science and both are important when making decisions during public health emergencies.