News

Help set health agenda

County seeks public support

By RICK LEVIN

Staff reporter

Do you worry about the availability of water in Island County? Concerned about hazardous waste? How about indoor air quality? Bioterrorism? Septic systems? High permit fees?

If these or any other health-related topics pique, rankle or rub you the wrong way, here’s your chance to do something about it. Under the auspices of a new, federally-funded program, the Island County Health Department is looking to gather a diverse team of citizens that will advise officials on what actually matters to taxpayers in the realm of environmental health.

Earlier this year, the health department received a prestigious grant from the Center for Disease Control with funds earmarked for implementing what is known as the PACE-EH model — Protocols for Assessing Community Excellence in Environmental Health. With the initial $175,000 allotment in a slated three-year program designed to build stronger ties to local communities, environmental health officials currently are moving toward building a citizen-based Assessment Team which will speak directly to concerns of tax-payers throughout Island County.

Environmental Health Director Keith Higman praised the PACE plan for its focus on putting power back into the hands of citizens. Too often, Higman said, local health departments function on a “top-down” basis, with rules and regulations devolving to local agencies from the state and federal level. PACE-EH, and more specifically the Assessment Team, seeks to reverse this trend by developing stronger ties to the community and allowing citizens to participate more directly in policy decision-making.

“It’s helping us to shape the future of environmental health in Island County,” Higman said of the PACE grant, which is one of only five such grants awarded throughout the country and the only federal money to go to a small, rural county.

Environmental Health Initiative project coordinator Celine Servatius currently is taking application for the Assessment Team, which will be approximately 25-members strong and will involve people from all regions with a “diversity of viewpoints.” Servatius envisions such a group being comprised of people from all walks of life, including business leaders, farmers, preservationists and so-called everyday citizens who represent the interests of families and neighborhoods.

“It will provide great dialogue between the health department and the community, and between community members,” Servatius said. The ideal is that such “kneecap to kneecap” communication will result in an “increased capacity” for the health department, meaning it will become more efficient in such areas as data management, meeting public needs and improving staff knowledge of issues of concern to the community.

The Assessment Team, which Servatius hopes will meet for the first time July 18, will be focused on issues revolving around environmental health, such as food safety, pest infestation, diseases, solid waste, septic concerns, school safety and chemical exposure. Members should be sincerely concerned about the impact of such issues on their surrounding community, and be willing to make an indefinite commitment to the group on a volunteer basis. The focus should be “the big picture,” not limited to single issues of continual advocacy. A team-oriented approach is key.

Servatius is shooting for meetings to take place for a couple of hours on the third Thursday of every month. Beyond this, she said she hopes team members will take time to connect with their local communities in order to assess the concerns of those in the region.

“We want to bring multiple voices together in one unified approach,” Servatius said, adding that any concerns addressed could then be taken to the Board of Health, which advises the Board of Island County Commissioners on creating policy.

The goal of such involvement, Servatius said, is for the health department to be in a “much better position to address their needs internally and with our support.” This also serves as a condensed version of the goals to be obtained by the PACE-EH model, which, ideally, look to reinvigorate the democratic process.

“I think this is a great opportunity for the community,” Servatius said. “It’s a win-win situation.”

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