A bill that would give the state a level of oversight and influence over the independent health departments in Tulsa and Oklahoma counties passed a House committee vote Tuesday by a 7-2 margin.
House Bill 2504 would require each local health department director to consult with the state health commissioner “to ensure administrative alignment” and allow the commissioner to appoint one member to each department’s respective nine-person board.
The legislation also would grant the health commissioner the authority to request the removal of either director — requiring a two-thirds vote of the respective board to carry out — and would give final say in hiring a director to a panel of the health commissioner, mayor and chair of the county commission.
The proposed bill also would add statutory language that neither the Tulsa City-County Health Department, known as the Tulsa Health Department, nor the Oklahoma City-County Health Department could implement rules or regulations “more stringent than” the state’s, replacing current wording that rules and regulations not be “inconsistent” with the state.
Rep. Chris Kannady, R-Oklahoma City, said he is the originator of the legislation — not just its sponsor — to improve preparation for this pandemic and “general, routine functions” of both urban health departments.
In five months of Oklahoma National Guard active-duty service, Kannady said he worked alongside members of the governor’s Cabinet and state health officials. He said there were “a lot of problems” with the chain of command and structure of the Tulsa and Oklahoma City health departments.
“(They were) doing things that were completely different that I would say were contrary and negative towards the greater mission of trying to take care of what we needed to do during the pandemic,” Kannady said.
Kannady drew attention to Deputy Health Commissioner Keith Reed, who leads the state’s vaccination rollout, seated to his left at the committee meeting. Kannady said he and Reed served together in the Guard.
House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said there are “a great number of us” who are concerned that the bill might be an attempt to punish Bruce Dart, the Tulsa Health Department’s executive director, for saying things that might not have been popular.
Kannady, who chairs the Judiciary-Civil Committee in which the bill was being discussed, called the question fair and said that isn’t how he works.
“I think this is a good balance,” he said. “I think it will create administrative alignment.”
Perhaps most prominently, Dart publicly called for the postponement of then-President Donald Trump’s campaign rally at the BOK Center in Tulsa from last June until pandemic conditions were safer. Dart also publicly supported a statewide mask mandate, a policy Gov. Kevin Stitt has adamantly opposed and not enacted.
Dart, in an emailed response to questions from the Tulsa World, said Kannady hasn’t contacted him directly to discuss the legislator’s concerns about how the Tulsa Health Department has handled the pandemic.
“This is the first I am hearing about any negative actions by THD,” Dart wrote. “We have worked closely with the Oklahoma State Department (of Health) throughout the pandemic, and have not received feedback that is negative. We have always been very responsive to the State.”
Dart said he doesn’t understand the purpose of the bill.
The Tulsa Health Department maintains a commitment to scientific and data-driven responses to the pandemic to keep Tulsa County residents as safe as possible, which always comes before politics, he said.
“The Tulsa Health Department staff have worked and sacrificed for over a year now and have done an exemplary job responding to this historical pandemic,” Dart said. “Prior to the pandemic, Tulsa County has seen a marked improvement in health outcomes over the last decade.”
The vote was split along party lines.
Republican Reps. Steve Bashore, Bob Culver, Anthony Moore, Carl Newton, Jim Olsen and Chris Sneed voted in favor of the measure with Kannady.
Virgin and Rep. Collin Walke voted against the bill.