Opinion

Citizens Rise Up Against Bureaucratic ‘Police Powers’

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Posted: Jun 23, 2020 11:32 AM
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Citizens Rise Up Against Bureaucratic ‘Police Powers’

Source: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

MADISON — If Winnebago County supervisors thought they were going to nonchalantly move through an ordinance that would give police powers to the county health officer, they were quickly disabused of that notion Monday morning. 

Hundreds of very unhappy citizens showed up to the county’s legislative committee meeting, and scores expressed their displeasure with a proposal that gives an unelected health official the sole authority to enact lockdowns and establish “quarantine guards.” 

“They woke up a sleeping giant. Thank God the people woke up,” said state Rep. Michael Schraa, (R-Oshkosh). 

The restaurant owner and Winnebago County resident rallied the troops, as it were, Sunday, posting on Facebook information about the committee meeting and what’s at stake for his fellow citizens. More than 500 residents turned out. 

In part the ordinance gives the Winnebago County health officer the power to “close schools and forbid public gatherings in schools, churches, places of employment, public buildings, private property, and other places, when deemed necessary, to control outbreaks, epidemics or pandemics.”  

The proposal further states, “The local health officer shall employ as many persons as necessary to execute their orders and properly guard any place if quarantine or other restrictions on communicable diseases are violated or intent to violate is manifested.” 

“These persons shall be sworn in as quarantine guards, shall have police powers and may use all necessary means to enforce the state laws for the prevention and control of communicable diseases, or the orders and rules of the department or any local health officer,” the proposed ordinance continues.. 

Not surprisingly, terms like “police powers” and phrases such as “all necessary means” have chafed the patience of Winnebago County residents who have seen this movie before. 

Sound familiar? 

The ordinance is similar to the lockdowns the Evers administration issued beginning in March in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Gov. Tony Evers and his power-grabbing state health chief effectively shut down the state, ordering all “nonessential” businesses to close, curtailing travel, and commanding Wisconsin citizens to stay at home. 

On May 13, the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Evers’ stay-at-home orders and much of the state began reopening. Some cities, including Milwaukee and Madison, continued the lockdowns, then moved at a crawl in reopening. 

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. 

As the MacIver Institute reported, emergency public health ordinances have been proposed in Marathon, Walworth, Winnebago, Oconto, Jefferson, Dodge, and Price Counties. Door County passed its public health ordinance on May 26.

Curiously, the ordinance language is strikingly similar to the proposals in each county looking to grab authority for unelected bureaucrats. 

But citizens are standing up for their rights. 

Taking on ‘1984′

Board supervisors in Walworth County, following fierce public opposition, voted down a proposal that would have allowed the local health office to employ “quarantine guards, “ with “police powers.”  That ordinance included the same concerning language that the public health officer “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.”

“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 Walworth County Board members. 

The “police powers” clause in the proposed ordinances could allow government officials to seize property deemed contaminated by communicable diseases. 

Ordinances in Winnebago and Jefferson counties would allow the public health officer, with a special warrant, to “enter any private property, building, place of employment, vessel or conveyance not open to the public” to investigate “the presence” of any communicable disease, MacIver reported. 

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Marathon County’s ordinance contemplated ankle monitors for COVID-19 criminals. Public opposition forced the board’s executive committee to send the measure back to the Health and Human Services Committee, where it is expected to remain for four-to-six weeks for review. 

Old laws, new concerns

Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris, a Democrat, has said the county is only following state statute. 

“Decades ago the state legislature gave the power to issue health orders to the health directors of counties and sometimes municipalities if they weren’t covered by a county,” told Fox11 News. What the county needs, Harris said, is an enforcement tool as spelled out in the proposed ordinance. 

Schraa said the state statutes Harris refers to were written, passed and signed by a Democrat Legislature and governor. The lawmaker pointed to several laws still on Wisconsin’s books — a felony for adultery, for instance — that are no longer recognized as crimes. 

“It’s still illegal to camp in a wagon alongside the side of the highway,” Schraa said. 

The lawmaker’s point is clear. Just because a statute was once considered a good idea or acceptable to society, doesn’t mean it is today. For a great number of people in Wisconsin, complete power in the hands of a government bureaucrat to take away constitutionally-protected rights is never a good idea. 

“My whole goal was to bring clarity and transparency to the process. Most people are busy working. They don’t care or understand what resolutions the county board is passing,” Schraa said. “I think even the liberal members of that committee got the message today: If this ordinance ever comes to the full county board, you can be guaranteed you will have an opponent in the next election.”