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COVID-19 ordinance sent back to committee

COVID-19 ordinance sent back to committee COVID-19 ordinance sent back to committee

Chamber threatens lawsuit

The Marathon County Executive Committee on Thursday voted unanimously to return a COVID-19 ordinance back to the Health and Human Services Committee while a Wisconsin Counties Association (WCA) task force reviews the legislation over the next six weeks.

The committee’s move comes as the ordinance was attacked both by the Wausau Chamber of Commerce and the state’s largest business lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC ).

The ordinance, drafted by county attorney Scott Corbett as a reaction to the Wisconsin Supreme Court decision in Wisconsin Legislature v. Palm,

provided a local ordinance foundation for the county health officer to use state-granted powers to order COVID-19 quarantines at the individual, business, municipality and county levels. The ordinance passed without dissent at the Health and Human Services Committee level. County board chairman Kurt Gibbs, town of Cassel, said he, Corbett, Sheriff Scott Parks and health officer Joan Theurer met earlier in the week with Wausau Chamber of Com- merce representatives to discuss the ordinance and, despite “great discussion... and feedback,” could not resolve differences over the ordinance.

Gibbs recommended that supervisors put the ordinance “on hold” while the WCA task force, which will include doctors, representatives of the Wisconsin Restaurant and Wisconsin Economic Development Board and WCA legal counsel, reviews the county ordinance.

Supervisor William Harris, Wausau, said he supported the ordinance as narrowly crafted legislation to address the situation where “specific persons would maliciously do community spread” of COVID-19. He said the ordinance would not, as critics have alleged, create an Orwellian state with a health officer with dictatorial powers.

Supervisor E.J. Stark, Rothschild, said he largely supported the ordinance, but also looked forward to WCA possibly improving it. He said he received 65 e-mails and 20 telephone calls urging him to vote against the ordinance.

“I hope we can address the concerns expressed by constituents,” he said.

Last week Wednesday, Scott Manley, WMC Executive President of Government Relations took aim at the county ordinance and urged county supervisors to oppose it. “Marathon County’s proposed COVID-19 ordinance is fundamentally flawed, unfair and should be rejected by the county board,” he said. “Several of the regulations proposed against businesses and citizens conflict with state law and are therefore unlawful. The ordinance gives broad, overreaching and unaccountable authority to a single unelected decision-maker to impose burdens that could have disastrous economic consequences for families and businesses in Marathon County.”

In a Wednesday e-mailed letter to chairman Gibbs, Lane Ruhland, senior counsel for the Wausau Chamber of Commerce, expressed further opposition to the COVID-19 ordinance and threatened legal action.

The attorney objected to ordinance fines, which start at $100 but reach to a maximum of $25,000, and to granting the county health officer the “unfettered ability” to close a business if it could be shown to be “epidemiologically linked” to COVID-19.

“These severe penalties, coupled with the overwhelmingly broad language triggering enforcement authority, raise significant due process issues for all subject to the ordinance,” Ruhland writes.

The attorney questions the power of a county health official to take action against an offending business given the Wisconsin Legislation v. Palm decision. He notes that the state law that empowers county health officers “closely mirrors” the one that the Wisconsin Supreme Court held was overly broad and not constitutional.

The attorney threatened a lawsuit against the county. “The chamber has no interest in a protracted and costly legal dispute,” he wrote. “However, if this proposed ordinance is enacted, the chamber and several of its members intend to avail themselves of all remedies available at law.”

The Wausau Chamber of Commerce represents 900 members.

In related business, the Executive Committee voted to extend the official declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic as an emergency through December 2020.