Without a hospital project to develop, the elected board of the Columbia Health District unanimously agreed Monday to work toward moving the county's state-mandated public health services out from under the district's purview.

That decision comes six weeks after County Commissioner Earl Fisher began his own inquiry into finding another agency with whom the county could enter into an intergovernmental agreement for public health services.

Both boards are bracing for the inevitable dissolution of the health district, whose role has been reduced since the results of a November ballot measure showed overwhelming opposition to the district's plans for a hospital.

'I know that feeling [to dissolve] is growing,' Fisher said during an interview last week, prior to the board's decision. 'I didn't want to walk in and have them say, 'Oh, we're going to dissolve,' and then have to fish around for a solution.'

Fisher characterizes his work as preliminary. So far, he's talked to Oregon Health and Sciences University, Columbia County Mental Health, the state of Oregon and Washington County.

Columbia County Mental Health has come out as the front runner. The health district board at its March 14 meeting recommended that talks continue with the agency, which operates as a public nonprofit.

If an agreement were made, the district would transfer public health employees and services to the nonprofit, said Jay Tappan, chair of the health district's elected board.

For its part, the county has the ability to extend an intergovernmental agreement with any agency willing and capable of overseeing public health services. The current agreement with the health district is set on a semi-annual basis and is due to expire over the summer, Tappan said.

'What we're really looking at is changing the charter of the health district,' he said.

The latest round of shifting priorities within the health district comes at a time when it looks increasingly possible for the board to undergo a complete takeover by health district opponents during the May election.

Five dark horse candidates have said they plan to run for the open positions. The board candidates - Tammy Maygra, Stephanie Klepel, Peggy Crisp, Georgia Keiper and Madaline Anderson - have all voiced their opposition to current board members, especially their handling of the hospital project.

None of the current board members have expressed interest in running. Still, Fisher said the most recent talks to find a new oversight agency for public health has not been 'personality driven,' saying he simply wants to provide the county the best level of health care possible.

Dissolution of the district, if that's the end result, may take awhile.

For one, the county is still awaiting a judge's ruling on the legality of ballot measure 5-209, the so-called anti-hospital initiative. For another, the board would likely want an agreement signed before moving to dissolve.

The health district board can be dissolved either by district petition, by board resolution or by a county resolution, according to Sarah Hanson, the county's legal counsel.

'I can't say how long the [IGA agreement] process would take,' Hanson said. 'The length would depend on the duration of negotiations and contract review by both parties.'

The next steps would involve the county verifying that a new provider met the county's legal requirements.

The Oregon Department of Health and Human Services would then have to consent and sign a financial assistance agreement with the new provider.

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