A plan winding its way through city hall could help de-politicize public health decisions, but those close to the situation remain leery.
Ottawa’s city council also acts as its board of health. Last year, that structure came under fire when council scrapped the safer inhalation program, which provides clean pipes to crack users to keep them from contracting HIV and hepatitis C.
Other cities, including Toronto, have moved public health decisions off council’s agenda by creating a separate public health board. In Toronto, city councillors hold a minority of the seats on their board of health.
However, the Ottawa plan would see six city councillors joined by five citizens with expertise in health matters.
Somerset councillor Diane Holmes proposed that the majority of the seats in Ottawa go to health professionals. But when she couldn’t get consensus, she voted in favour of the six-five split at the community services committee.
“It is a compromise,” Holmes says, “but it’s a big improvement over what we have now.”
Holmes points to the safer inhalation program, which was canned by city hall in 2007 after a vote that pitted urban councillors like Holmes against their suburban counterparts. The provincial Ministry of Health picked up support for the crack-pipe program, now run by the Somerset West Community Health Centre.
Kathleen Cummings is the director of the AIDS Committee of Ottawa and a vocal proponent of the pipe program. She was part of the city’s consultation process about the board of health. She says she suggested that just three of the 11 seats on the board of health be given to councillors.
“Anything is better than the system we have now,” she says. “But I would question how independent it is when there are 11 members and six of them are councillors.”
Cummings says there’s not enough detail in council’s proposal to put her mind at ease.
“It makes me question, is this really about creating an independent structure that’s going to lead decision making around public health based on sound research, or is it this a way of washing their hands of it?” she says.
The proposal passed the community services committee unanimously. It now heads to city council for a vote by all councillors.