This post has been corrected. Please see note below for details.
Feeling backed against a wall by petitioners from an AIDS activist group, the Los Angeles City Council agreed Wednesday to place a measure on next year's ballot asking whether voters want the city to create an independent health agency. But the council also agreed to file a lawsuit challenging the validity of such a measure.
Council members said they were forced to place the proposal before voters because petition gatherers had successfully qualified it for the ballot. Their only other option was to adopt an ordinance immediately, ending five decades of contracted health services provided by Los Angeles County-run clinics, a step the majority of lawmakers said they were reluctant to take.
By agreeing to put the issue to a citywide vote in June 2014, members gain some time to work through legal concerns about several provisions of the proposed ordinance, council members decided. Members did not publicly discuss their concerns but recessed into a closed session where they voted 9 to 1 in favor of litigation.
The petition initiative was organized by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a health advocacy group based in Los Angeles. Spokeswoman Miki Jackson said she hopes the ballot measure will spur "wide and deep dialogue" on whether city residents are receiving their fair share of public health services.
[For the record, 8:36 p.m. June 19: An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to Miki Jackson as president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. She is a spokeswoman for the organization.]
"We are not prepared should there be a major public health emergency,'' Jackson said, citing outbreaks of syphilis and meningitis across Los Angeles. "We have many serious public health issues in this city and in this county, and in the city we do not feel we are getting enough attention and we're not doing the best we can do."
William T Fujioka, the county's executive officer, appeared before the council and defended the Public Health Department's record. He said shifting to an independently-run city system would result in inferior services and, potentially, higher costs for taxpayers.
After the council vote, Fujioka said he was encouraged by the action. "The city recognizes that this measure would be detrimental to the overall health system in Los Angeles County,'' he said.
City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana estimated that it would cost the city $4.5 million to hold the vote and roughly $261 million a year to operate an independent agency. Dr. Jonathan Fielding, the county's public health officer, said a split would mean the loss of $107 million in fees, grants and other revenue and the potential loss of 970 county jobs.