Opinion

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Reality Check

The Politics of Public Health

This charade of caring about public health while failing to lead is of zero value to our at-risk residents, first responders and healthcare workers

Sometimes being a leader requires standing up for others even at political cost. I remember when I was the mayor of Kalispell, the city manager came under public attack for city staff management decisions she made. It was clear as the criticism was ramping up that the city manager needed the public support of the elected officials who hired her. And as elected officials, we knew the easy road was for the criticism to go without response and let the city manager fend for herself. We owed no obligation to the city manager, and the political heat from defending her and her decision making would be significant. Knowing the risks, we defended her publicly and condemned the criticism because it was the right thing to do for our community and the professional we hired to manage the city.

The county commissioners are now being asked by Interim Health Officer Tamalee St. James Robinson to do the same thing: to support her decision making publicly. In response, the commissioners declined under the auspices, “It’s not our jurisdiction.” Yet, Ms. Robinson wasn’t asking the county commissioners to take on public health decision making; she was simply asking them to provide political support for her directives. This issue is no different than commissioner-approved mail voting, where the needs of the elderly surpassed the desire for in-person congregation at voting booths. What’s changed?

Health officer directives rely upon public compliance to be effective. For public compliance, the support of political leaders is key to giving credibility to the directives. Likewise, if the directives are credible to preserve public health, then compliance occurs because of a collective desire not to harm others. I have no idea if masks are effective, but I wear a mask for the same reason I didn’t turn out the lights when my kids were afraid of the dark. Their fear may have been misplaced, but my desire to not harm my children surpassed my desire for a lower electric bill.

If the county commissioners and the health board don’t believe the health officer’s directives are sound, then she should be allowed to serve another community where her talents and wisdom are appreciated. Moreover, as the commissioners have concluded the appropriate public health response is to encourage us to simply exercise our constitutional rights and fend for ourselves, then the commissioners should disband the health board, fire the public health officer, and return the tax dollars to us. But continuing this charade of caring about public health while failing to lead is of zero value to our at-risk residents of Flathead County, our first responders, and our healthcare workers.

Tammi Fisher is an attorney and former mayor of Kalispell.