A Columbia mayoral candidate is pushing for the city to hire a person to specifically work on health issues citywide, and one current council member said he’s willing to make a resolution toward creating the position.
Sam Johnson, a former top aide to Mayor Steve Benjamin and one of three candidates currently running for mayor, is calling for the city to create the position of a chief health officer. Such an officer would head up various health initiatives in the city, from dealing with pandemics to helping spearhead efforts against a number of diseases, such as AIDS, HIV or diabetes.
Second-term District 2 Councilman Ed McDowell, who has endorsed Johnson’s mayoral campaign, said at a Monday news conference that he would introduce a resolution authorizing the city manager to hire a health officer position.
As of noon Monday, that item was not on the agenda for Tuesday’s special called meeting of City Council. The Council is set to take a first vote on the 2022 budget at Tuesday’s gathering. That budget, as proposed, would not include a tax increase, but would include rate bumps for water and sewer.
“This is about implementing public policy that saves people’s lives,” Johnson said Monday of his health officer proposal. “This is about establishing a priority that, no matter where you live in Columbia, you deserve the same life expectancy. ... Unfortunately, there are many different Columbias, and for many of them, there has been a health pandemic long before COVID-19. We’ve had a heart disease pandemic, an HIV pandemic, a kidney disease pandemic.”
Johnson is locked in a campaign battle for mayor against at-large Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine and District 4 Councilman Daniel Rickenmann. Benjamin announced in January that he would not seek re-election this year.
While she acknowledged she isn’t outright against the idea, Devine said Monday that creating a chief health officer position would need to be thoroughly discussed by City Council before it is approved. She also said she would be concerned about overlap with services local governments already offer, noting that Emergency Management Director Harry Tinsley has headed up many of the city’s COVID-19 response efforts, and that Richland County operates a health department.
“I think any proposal of a new position would have to be fully vetted, to fully include the costs and whether you are being redundant in any of the duties you are asking for,” Devine said.
Rickenmann, meanwhile, was ardent in his belief that the city does not need to create a chief health officer post.
“Why would we create a position out of our realm of authority?” Rickenmann said. “The reality is we are having trouble fixing potholes and water leaks, how are we going to take on a health officer? That’s why we have health experts like DHEC, the hospital systems and medical universities. That is not our role in the community.”
The health officer position was the subject of a Monday news conference in front of City Hall, where Johnson was joined by McDowell and Councilman Sam Davis, along with Dr. Bambi Gaddist, a public health official who leads the South Carolina HIV Council.
“We look forward to a pathway to partnership with a public health liaison for the city who has a global understanding of advancing health strategies, versus one-shot deals where we come in one day and we’re out the next and the community never really understands what we’re looking to do to build their health. So, let us really consider the critical need for this position in this great city.”