KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — The authority of the Knox County Board of Health is in question.
Some county commissioners want to limit the power of the board to enforce COVID-19 related policies, like the mask mandate.
On Monday night, the commission debated the merits of the proposal by commissioners Justin Biggs and Kyle William Ward.
Ward said the proposal is meant to reduce the chances the county might face lawsuits tied to actions of the Board of Health.
"It does not take away from the board to be able to make policy but protects the citizens a bit more from being arrested," said Ward.
No one in Knox County has been arrested for violating any Board of Health orders.
There are several factors that give the Board of Health authority, including a Knox County ordinance labeling it as a governing body, whose policies and decisions the Knox County Health Department must follow.
This board is not new, but it's been given more authority under Governor Bill Lee to enact policies related to the coronavirus during the pandemic.
People have argued since the Board of Health wasn't elected, they shouldn't be able to make policy.
LMU constitutional law professor Stewart Harris explained this to 10News in August.
"You might be concerned that they're unelected but in one sense they are," said Harris. "The voters of Knox County elected their own county council and their own mayor and it was they or their predecessors who actually enacted these ordinances giving such power to the local health department."
If power changes are made, Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs said the county would likely default to following the Tennessee Pledge.
"I have been vocal about my concerns regarding the unchecked authority of the Board of Health to make sweeping policy so I am glad others are joining the conversation to share their own thoughts," Jacobs said in a statement to 10News. "Without the Board of Health’s oversight, Knox County would likely begin fully following Governor Lee’s Tennessee Pledge which would put us on more equal footing with surrounding counties."
In the city, Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon would only be able to enforce policies like mask use in city-owned buildings and offices.
Knox County Health Department Director Dr. Martha Buchanan worries about what changes may lie ahead.
"The Board of Health is a set of health experts and they have the expertise to make those decisions. To put that decision-making power in another body where they don't have that expertise can be challenging," said Buchanan.
Knoxville City Councilwoman Lauren Rider is proposing a resolution of gratitude for the Board of Health and health department during Tuesday night's meeting.
She said both groups have been working non-stop since the start of the pandemic and deserve to hear publicly their efforts are appreciated.
"It's a good time to say thank you to the Board of Health for the time that they put into this," said Rider.
A separate online petition started by Knox County citizens also expresses support for the Board of Health.
The county commission will meet again Monday, September 28, and could take formal action then.
The 11 members of that elected body will also consider a plan to add a citizen, non-healthcare worker representative to the nine-member Board of Health.
It's made up largely of health care professionals, as well as the Knox County mayor and Knox County Schools superintendent.