The city’s decision to put off a vote on a controversial public health measure was a near unanimous one. Only one member of the council voted against the delay.
The debate leading up to Tuesday’s decision was unusual. It’s rare that local ordinances under consideration attract anything like this degree of attention. And in discussions at the Leader-Telegram’s office, we were hard-pressed to recall a time in which we had heard of a local chamber of commerce announcing formal opposition to an ordinance.
The council’s actions basically conceded the requests made by the chamber’s opposition. It hits pause on the process, allowing time for the city to form a task force and review the proposal. The delay is significant. That task force won’t form before January. It may not have recommendations until June 2021. That’s about the time many experts think a vaccine will be arriving for widespread use, though targeted vaccinations in health care and those who are unusually vulnerable are expected to start several months earlier.
Part of that timeline was, according to its author, due to the fact the city is itself heading for a significant transition. City Manager Dale Peters retires next week, and Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle said she hoped a January start would give the city time to have a successor in place.
It’s reasonable to think the city’s decision put considerable pressure on the county supervisors to think long and hard about whether to move ahead with their parallel ordinance. That decision will arrive next week, and the county expects significant public comment during that meeting. That’s a reasonable assumption.
Lieske Giese, the city-county health department’s director, expressed concerns about the coming months. She was right to do so. Experts have long suspected the fall and winter could see large increases in the number of COVID cases. If those increases come on top of the surge we’re seeing now in Wisconsin there’s every reason to be worried.
There are a couple important things we hope elected officials note from this process. One is that the city and county need to understand the need for a coherent sales pitch if they want to get any ordinance on COVID control through, now or later, without a significant backlash.
Most of what they do isn’t particularly controversial. Most local government actions are routine, pro forma votes that have as much suspense as watching grass grow. There’s no real need for a sales pitch to residents about the decision to pay the bills. But that can lull officials into complacency, making them late to recognize when something isn’t routine. That puts them a step behind, and playing catch up is always harder. There seems to have been an element of that here.
The other thing doesn’t need to be learned by local government. They’re the ones who said it. The response to the pandemic at both the state and federal levels has been an incoherent, scattershot mess. The pandemic has been politicized to a completely unacceptable degree as politicians sidelined experts for a chance to be in front of the cameras.
The message to state and federal legislators is simple: You were elected to lead. Do it.
The grandstanding that has been on display for months has put local governments in impossible positions. The very governments with the resources and ability to respond most effectively, to marshal a comprehensive plan of action, have instead been paralyzed by habitual infighting. It’s so deeply embedded in their identities that they have largely stood by while 7.8 million Americans got sick and more than 215,000 died.
We can only regard that incomprehensible failure with the deepest of revulsion.
Inaction due to worries about the other party getting credit for anything is not leadership. Failure to negotiate is not leadership. It is fear. And fear is not a governing ideology. Fear is not a rational leadership model.
We don’t expect elected officials to always agree with one another. That’s not going to happen. But this is where decades of tit-for-tat bickering, retaliation and the systematic undermining of trust in one another has gotten us.
Broadly speaking, the people who elected you are better than that.
Why aren’t you?