Opinion

Order That Would've Given Wisconsin Health Official 'Police Powers' Defeated

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Posted: Jun 10, 2020 1:13 PM
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Order That Would've Given Wisconsin Health Official 'Police Powers' Defeated

Source: AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Liberty wins in Walworth County, Wisconsin.

County Board Supervisors, seemingly poised to pass a broad Gov. Evers-esque public health order, ultimately rejected the controversial measure after scores of angry citizens spoke in opposition. Some Walworth County residents warned supervisors they would quickly find themselves out of office if they approved the “power grab by the county.” 

“I was wondering how on earth I managed to go to bed last night in Walworth County in 2020 and wake up in George Orwell’s 1984. Shame on you,” Dawn Boley of Whitewater told board members. 

The proposed article would give the county health officer broad power to track and control “any communicable disease” — not simply the COVID-19 virus at the core of a global pandemic. Said health official “shall promptly take all measures necessary to prevent, suppress and control communicable diseases …” 

If the language sounds familiar, it is. It’s the same verbiage used in the overreaching statewide lockdowns issued by Gov. Tony Evers’ and Andrea Palm, the Democrat’s Department of Health Services secretary-designee. Those stay-at-home edicts, however, were struck down by the Wisconsin Supreme Court last month, which reopened much of the state from the draconian control of the Evers administration. 

Liberal Attorney General Josh Kaul quickly backed up his political pal Evers and issued an opinion that the Supreme Court ruling — at its marrow a ruling invalidating any breach of civil liberties by unelected health directors — did not impact local ordinances. 

So local governments began coming up with their own orders, some more restrictive than others, many disregarding the constitutional protections that must be guaranteed even in times of crisis, according to the Supreme Court ruling. 

Walworth County’s article, following now-suspect state statutes, would allow the health officer to “employ as many persons as necessary to execute their orders and properly guard any place if quarantine or other restrictions on communicable disease are violated or intent to violate is manifested.” 

They could employ “quarantine guards, “ with “police powers” and “may use all necessary means to enforce the state laws for the prevention and control of communicable disease, or the orders and rules of the department or any local health officer.”

They could seize property of the infected, if there was concern the property — furniture, beds, etc. — could cause the spread of the communicable disease (whatever that may be). 

In a county recently freed from Evers’ abusive lockdowns, the new ordinance was like a punch in the face to liberty-appreciating citizens.  

“It concerns me as a patriot to see our government hand over our rights and our freedoms to an unelected official,” said Shelby Lemke of Williams Bay. “This (ordinance) may be because of coronavirus, but what will it be next? 

“I do not consent to this and I will not comply with this because it’s not constitutional.” 

Dave Overbeek, a long-time member of the Richmond Town Board, said he felt “very unrepresented” by the county. 

“It’s a disgrace that you would bring anything like this up,” he said. “I strongly urge people, if (the supervisors) pass this, the next time vote these people out of office. We don’t treat our people in our township like this.” 

Some threatened lawsuits. Others threatened recalls. All demanded that the board kill the ordinance. 

After a little hemming and hawing and hurt feelings, all but one supervisor present rejected the ordinance. 

Walworth County Corporation Counsel Michael Cotter said the article strictly follows state statute, but it does not include criminal penalties, such as a state provision that authorizes up to 30 days in jail for COVID “criminals.” The local ordinance would have allowed officials to impose a fine. Still, the language giving the health officer the authority to use “reasonable and necessary” means to control communicable diseases opens the door to all kinds of potential mischief and questionable tactics — like quarantine guards with police powers. 

The article is similar to an ordinance proposed in Marathon County  which contemplates using ankle bracelets to monitor ordinance “violators.” That measure, which also has drawn a good deal of public opposition, is on the board’s Thursday agenda. 

There is growing suspicion that the local ordinance language, contained in several local public health proposals, may be coming from a liberal administration that remains livid about the conservative-ledSupreme Court’s decision. The Evers administration did not return a request for comment.