County Board delays vote on emergency powers

Proposed ordinance creates $100-$500 fines for defying public health orders
Oconto County Board Chairman Paul Bednarik, left, and Administrative Coordinator Kevin Hamann prepare for the May 21 board meeting at Holy Trinity Parish Hall in Oconto.

Warren Bluhm | NEW Media
By: 
Warren Bluhm
News Editor

OCONTO — The Oconto County Board hesitated to authorize sweeping new communicable diseases enforcement powers and penalties during its May 21 monthly meeting, sending an ordinance amendment back to committee on a 17-11 vote.

Some board members were more hesitant than others.

“This is the scariest thing I have read since ‘1984,’” shouted Supervisor Gary Frank, not necessarily emotional as wanting to be heard in the expanse of Holy Trinity Parish Hall, which was equipped with only one microphone that was used sparingly.

Referring to a passage that spells out the powers of the public health officer or designee, he pointed to incumbent Deb Konitzer and said, “I trust our public health officer — this one — but what if we have a different one? Or ‘designee,’ it could mean anyone.”

The proposed ordinance sets fines of $100 to $500 for willful violate or obstruction of any state statute or local health officer’s order or rule relating to the control of communicable diseases during a state of emergency.

“I was so petrified reading this,” Frank said. “I said this cannot be happening anywhere, and yet we’re going to start to do this in Oconto County?”

At the request of Health and Human Services Board chair Al Sleeter, Konitzer explained that the language referring to a “designee” refers to a chain of command required by law to define who’s in charge if the public health officer is unavailable.

“That has been in place at least 10 years,” she said.

District Attorney Robert Burke told the board the ordinance amendment was mostly his idea, to give the public health division’s efforts some enforcement authority in emergency conditions.

With visitors swarming to the area as the summer tourism season begins, Burke said he had concerns about enforceability.

“If we don’t have an outbreak, OK,” he said. “If we do have an outbreak and Public Health has to do something, how do we enforce that?”

Burke and Sheriff Todd Skarban said the first approach to an individual or business ignoring public health guidelines in an emergency, for example, would be to educate, then warn, and finally enforcement as a last resort.

“Am I ever going to have to write a ticket? I haven’t yet,” Skarban said. “I haven’t arrested anybody in the last 60 days under that rule, and I could have … Education and guidance is absolutely our best tool to get the job done.”

Ninety-nine percent of business owners will agree to close if presented with information, Skarban said.

“If I come to you and ask you, ‘Hey, we have a little emergency here at your business, can you please shut down for just a couple of days, we’ll get you open just as quick as we can, we need to do some cleaning and those types of things,’ and we’re offering you proof and statistical data that people got sick in your business, as a reasonable person you’re going to say, “Absolutely.’”

That being said, the ordinance would give the county a tool to convince the less reasonable, the sheriff said.

Sleeter said he’s not going to advocate for the county going in and breaking up wedding parties, for example.

“I think this being a safety net for the sheriff’s department or for the health department would be, I think, critical for this county,” he said, referring to last year’s huge windstorm and flooding conditions in the eastern part of the county this spring. “Most of it is education, information, that’s the priority, but as (Skarban) said, there’s always some cases where people are just going to go off on their own by themselves.”

The Health and Human Services Committee recommended the new ordinance during a special meeting 45 minutes before the supervisors convened, and a number of supervisors objected to passing it on the same day they first received it.

Supervisor Don Bartels Jr. described the ordinance as a massive overreach.

“Let’s put aside the COVID crisis right now, let’s say we have a bad flu season — we could just shut everybody down. It happened once, it could happen again,” Bartels said. “I’m real hesitant to give the government that much authority.”

Supervisor Diane Nichols said before county officials could act, they would need a proclamation from the County Board chairman in consultation with the administrative coordinator and public health officer.

“The bottom line is do we trust them and their discretion,” Nichols said.

The successful motion by Supervisor Guy Gooding sends the measure back to the Law Enforcement/Judiciary Committee and Health and Human Services Board for further review and recommendations.

wbluhm@newmedia-wi.com