EAU CLAIRE — A proposed local ordinance on the powers of the public health director and oversight from elected officials during a disease outbreak is stuck in limbo until courts make a decision on the issue.
A 20-person task force discussing the local legislation decided last week it should be put on hold until the Wisconsin Supreme Court or appellate courts issue guidance relating to the authority of appointed public health officials.
“With the uncertainty of what’s in the courts right now it was the right decision,” said Eau Claire City Council President Terry Weld, who served on the task force.
Following its regular meeting on Tuesday afternoon, the council held a pre-legislative session to get an update on the ordinance that the city first considered in autumn.
Interim City Manager David Solberg said that the proposed ordinance wouldn’t come back for consideration for at least a year, unless significant changes are proposed to the original version.
The delayed ordinance outlines the state-granted authority of the local public health director to issue public health orders while a communicable disease threatens the community. It also adds oversight from local elected officials that could decide whether those orders should be fully enforceable or merely advisory recommendations.
The ordinance would allow public health workers to issue $200 fines to violators and businesses could lose licenses granted by the city if they persistently disobey the orders.
Along with the city ordinance, the county government also was considering legislation that was identical, save for the ability to rescind licenses.
When it was first introduced last fall, the contagious disease ordinance stirred controversy resulting in protests outside of local government buildings and a statement from the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce asking that it be withdrawn from consideration.
A draft of the ordinance was released in September, but the City Council and County Board both decided in October to postpone a vote. Instead they opted to form a diverse task force to solicit public feedback and return a recommendation by early June.
The task force comprised of people from health care, business, education and local government sectors held four meetings and one public listening session between March and last week.
While the proposed ordinance was intended to address the handling of future communicable disease threats to the community, Solberg said that was difficult given differing opinions on how the current COVID-19 pandemic is being handled.
Hesitancy to move forward on the local ordinance is linked to the mid-May 2020 decision by the Wisconsin Supreme Court that struck down statewide safer-at-home orders enacted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
That decision pertained specifically to the powers of the Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, but court cases springing from that decision could impact abilities granted to local health officials, too.
“The appellate (court) may weigh in on the local authority, and that may dictate whether this (ordinance) is even needed or not,” Solberg said.
Councilman David Klinkhammer agreed that postponing until the courts rule was the prudent thing to do.
“If we’re going to initiate legislation that brings political oversight we need the best available information when we do it,” said Klinkhammer, who also served on the task force.
Though the local ordinance is postponed for now, at least one council member said she’d rather it never come back.
“I do not think this is a good idea to move forward,” Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle said. “I think it is a dangerous position in our community to disarm our expert.”
Describing herself as pro-science, Emmanuelle disagreed with the legislative oversight the local ordinance would apply to orders issued by the public health director.
“I actually don’t want an emergency situation to be addressed by a committee,” Emmanuelle said.