Public officials are trying to walk a tightrope with the need for public health instructions and the concurrent need for oversight by those elected by voters. It’s not an easy balance to strike. We would prefer they err more toward the latter.
There is no question that public health officials are at an unaccustomed level of visibility these past several months. Their jobs have always been important, but the emergence of a pandemic has certainly increased awareness of their roles. That spotlight has also heightened tensions with people who have concerns about an unelected position being able to enforce orders with fines for non-compliance.
We’re not unsympathetic to either the view that public health needs are paramount at the moment or that placing trust in those who do not answer to the voters is a risk. Both statements are true.
To the degree that one must be chosen over the other locally, we strongly prefer that legislative bodies resist the temptation to shunt responsibility onto public health officials. That’s why we like the basic idea behind the proposed oversight a new ordinance would create.
Under the proposal, the city and county would each be able to label health orders mandatory or recommended. Mandatory ordinances would be fully enforced, including the risk of fines for those who violate them. Such a step compels elected officials to take action and gives them a share of the responsibility for the orders.
Jenessa Stromberger, Eau Claire assistant city attorney, said the proposed ordinance “does not expand the health officer’s authority beyond what state statutes already allow.” She also pointed out that the Health Department’s authority to fine offenders already exists.
Opposition to the ordinance comes from two basic positions. One questions the legal authority of unelected officials to issue any orders. That authority clearly exists, though. Look at the requirements for restaurant inspections and the ability of an inspector to order an establishment closed for serious violations.
What we share with this group is a concern about investing too much authority in people who are not accountable to the public in the way elected officials are. While we think the potential for abuse is comparatively low, that’s different from saying there is no risk at all. There is good reason to ensure that the vast majority of power in government remains in the hands of those who must go before voters.
Others who voiced opposition to the proposal questioned the pandemic itself. One suggested COVID-19 was no more serious than the flu. We reject that stance entirely. If you need to know why, take a quick look at Tuesday’s cover story about a local man who nearly lost his life to the virus. And the long-term effects on people remain largely unknown.
Of course the local actions are only being considered because of the inconsistent muddle that has emerged from state and federal leaders. Their failures force local governments to wrestle with issues on which they would, absent the systemic dysfunction we see today, receive clear and consistent guidance from those levels.
We understand the concerns about concentration of power. History is brimming with examples of why putting too much power in the hands of any single person or agency is a terrible idea. We don’t need to see another added.
In the end, much of the responsibility in this pandemic comes down to the individual. Governments can order an establishment closed or permit it to open. But government cannot compel anyone to patronize such an establishment. That decision is in the hands of each person and must be weighed by each in turn.
In this situation, we need our elected leaders to, well, lead. We need them to resist the temptation to shunt decisions and authority elsewhere, and to maintain proper oversight.
We hope they choose wisely.