County health boards in West Virginia must now look over their shoulders when considering new rules. That could be good, or it could be bad. Or neither. We’ll have to wait and see how it plays out.
On Tuesday, Gov. Jim Justice signed into law Senate Bill 12, which requires any rule set by county boards of health to be approved by the county commission and any other body that appoints members to the board. Rules must also go through a public comment period.
Here on the local level, that means rules set by the Cabell County Board of Health will need approval of the Cabell County Commission and the Huntington City Council. The commission and the city council will have authority to approve new rules, disapprove them or amend them.
Some rules can drastically change the way people do business or interact with others in public. The prime example of that would be smoking ordinances that had the effect of eliminating smoking in public places. Nonsmokers rejoiced at those rules, as they could go to a movie theater, a ball game or to work without having to breathe secondhand smoke.
Last year’s experience with COVID-19 showed that many people in government tended to take their emergency powers to the extreme so they could control the details of the average person’s everyday life, all in the name of preventing spread of the disease. Justice still has the Capitol on COVID lockdown, for example, even though most legislators have asked him to let the public back into the building.
So what happens next? That’s the big unknown. Supporters of SB 12 say it balances public health with politics by giving more authority over policy to elected officials. There is logic in that. Why should unelected people have authority to enact ordinances the rest of us must live with, particularly when those rules are not subject to review or approval by elected officials?
The practical side of SB 12 raises serious questions, however. There has been concern that some counties could have two sets of rules — one for the city, one for the rest of the county — if the county commission and the city council disagree on whether a proposed rule should be enacted.
SB 12 was opposed by a number of groups, including the County Commissioners Association of West Virginia and the state association for public health officers. Neither group had any problems with the current setup, so why this change necessary?
What’s done is done. Now that the Legislature has passed SB 12 and the governor has signed it, we will just have to see how this plays out — for better or worse.