Aldermen approve Lightfoot plan to overhaul Chicago Board of Health

The eight-person board would be replaced with a nine-person board, with members serving staggered three-year terms. The ordinance requires the board to be “diverse” racially, economically and in gender — and include experts in a variety of areas.

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Chicago City Hall, 121 N. LaSalle St.

A Chicago City Council committee on Thursday OK’d a revamp of the city’s Board of Health.

Sun-Times file

The Chicago Board of Health was established in 1833 to provide the expert medical advice needed to fight the cholera epidemic at a time when there was no Department of Public Health to set policy.

That board has remained largely unchanged ever since, with outdated rules and members who serve indefinitely, some since the 1990s.

On Thursday, the City Council’s Committee on Health and Human Relations approved Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to start over in a way that would mandate diversity and guarantee a range of expertise needed to meet the public health challenges laid bare by the coronavirus. 

The eight-member board would be abolished and replaced with a nine-member board. Each member would serve a three-year term. The terms would be staggered, with three members turning over each year. All would continue to be appointed by the mayor.

The ordinance requires the board to be “diverse” — racially, economically and in gender —and include experts in a variety of areas, including emergency preparedness, communicable and chronic diseases, maternal and children’s health and the social conditions that have created the nine-year life expectancy gap between Black and white Chicagoans.

Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said the ordinance also would make clear that she and her successors have final say on public health rules in the city and that the board’s role is simply to advise the mayor on public health decisions.

“This would codify existing practice — which is an advisory role for the board and an executive role for [the Chicago Department of Public Health]. … There is nothing new that I, as commissioner, can do that I can’t already do” included in the mayor’s ordinance, Arwady said.

Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health in 2020.

Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, said a revamping of the Chicago Board of Health OK’d by a Council committee on Thursday will make clear what is already true in practice — that she and her successors have the final say on public health rules in the city.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Arwady said the mayor has no intention of dumping all eight board members. She’s striving for a healthy “mix of continuity and change.”

“There are people who have been on the board for 25 years-plus. It may be time to bring some additional voices,” the commissioner said.

“Some of those people would be physicians — but not all of them. … I feel very strongly about having somebody who represents federally-qualified health centers. … These community health centers are on-the-ground primary care providers. And right now, we don’t have anybody representing from that group. We would [also] continue to have representation certainly from hospitals and other community groups that do public health work.”

Board President Dr. Carolyn Lopez said the long-awaited shake-up will “help ensure that the board has a clear role, looks like Chicago and continues to evolve to face the challenges of the day — from the pandemic to racial injustice.”

It will also acknowledge that the board’s role is purely advisory.

“We meet with the CDPH commissioner and staff to give our perspectives on the city’s health landscape and how the department can improve its work. We can pass resolutions. We can take positions on legislation and regulations. What we lack is the capability to play an executive or operational role. We meet only monthly and don’t have a staff or budget,” Lopez said.

“The mayor’s ordinance brings the municipal code up to date to avoid overlapping functions with CDPH. This will give greater transparency to residents, who sometimes misunderstand our role and ask us to take steps that are in the domain” of the Department of Public Health.

Ald. Rosanna Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd) didn’t buy the fact that the mayor’s ordinance would simply update the city code to reflect the advisory role the Board of Health already plays.

“I’m a little worried that … we continue to follow the same path we have had, where we concentrate power on the mayor. And we continue to produce the same problem. Very limited participation from the Council in the drafting of things that are really important for our community,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said.

“I know that we can’t have an elected board right now. But that should be our main goal: To make sure that communities are being able to propose people and that people can elect them. That would be the ultimate goal in terms of democracy and participation and transparency so people don’t end up being appointed.”

In other action Thursday, the committee confirmed Lightfoot’s appointment of Nancy Andrade as head of the Chicago Commission on Human Relations and approved a pair of advisory resolutions.

The first urges the government of India to “respect the human rights of all people, adhere to international human rights law” and cease “all religiously-motivated violence.”

The second calls on Congress to end the “unsuccessful and harmful, 59-year-old economic, financial and commercial embargo as well as the travel restrictions on U.S. citizens and resident to Cuba and Cuban citizens to the United States.”

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