From left, Lancaster County Commissioners Craig Lehman, Josh Parsons and Ray D'Agostino listen to discussion of a proposed Health Advisory Council on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)
From left, Lancaster County Commissioners Craig Lehman, Josh Parsons and Ray D'Agostino listen to discussion of a proposed Health Advisory Council on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

The Lancaster County commissioners on Wednesday approved the creation of a volunteer Health Advisory Council.

The vote was 2-1, with Commissioners Josh Parsons and Ray D'Agostino voting in favor and Commissioner Craig Lehman voting against.

The resolution calls for establishing the 9- to 13-member council in time for it to be operational at the start of 2022. As described in its charter, its purpose is to "provide evidence-based advice on the detection, prevention and response to medical illnesses that may or do pose an emergent threat" in the county. (The resolution and charter can be viewed here.)

Reiterating his comments from Tuesday's work session, D'Agostino emphasized that the Health Advisory Council is not a health department, nor a step toward it.

It will have no standing budget and will not be empowered to implement health measures or policies. Its charter bars it from endorsing "programs or policies" or to "speak on behalf of the county."

As was the case Tuesday, public comment was entirely in favor of the proposal. East Hempfield Township Supervisors Chairman Scott Russell, Denver Mayor Rod Redcay and East Donegal Township Supervisors Chairman Tom Jones, all of whom spoke Tuesday, returned Wednesday to restate their personal support for the idea.

"I think this is a good and common-sense measure," Jones said.

These days, political division too often persists even when there's a shared goal, said Ernie Schreiber, retired executive editor of LNP. In this instance, both sides can move together, he said.

Advocates of a county health department have a point, he said: "We do need to do better in preparation for emergencies." So, he said, do opponents. The state's legal framework for county Health Departments is flawed, mandating attention to diseases that are no longer threats and requiring services such as health inspections and air quality monitoring that are already provided by other agencies and organizations.

The council provides "what both sides want," he said. "... This proposal is what's needed."

Lehman, the board of commissioners' lone Democrat, had proposed an amendment on Tuesday authorizing the county to seek formal permission from the state to study the pro's and cons of a county health department. His motion was not seconded, and thus died.

"I find it fascinating," he said, "that no one wants to have that public conversation," whatever its outcome.

He said "one thing sticks out" about the Health Advisory Council: That it cannot comment independently. By contrast, a Health Department would be appointed by the county commissioners, but would have autonomy to issue public statements and act on its own.

"Ask yourself the question if you only want elected officials to be telling you what's happening in an emergency," Lehman said.

Parsons said there are no grounds for good-faith advocates of a health department to oppose the Health Advisory Council.

"There's no downside to it," he said: If it's effective, it will advance the goals they seek; if it isn't, they are free to continue advocating for their preferred solution.

He complained that some community members worked behind the scenes to "criticize or, in fact, kill this proposal," specifically accusing out "the leader of the United Way."

The United Way of Lancaster County sponsors One United Lancaster. Parsons said One United Lancaster can't represent itself as a legitimate journalistic entity when the leader of its parent organization is "actively trying to kill a proposal."

Kevin Ressler, president and CEO of the United Way of Lancaster County, said he doesn't understand the reason for Parson's comments.

"I have taken no position on this proposal," he said, "and if I was trying to 'kill it,' I would not do so behind closed doors ... I would have prioritized coming to the meeting."

There are six Pennsylvania counties with public health departments, including Lancaster County's neighbor to the east, Chester County. To date, as Schreiber noted in his comments, having a local health department has not clearly correlated with improved outcomes in the pandemic.

Tim Stuhldreher