Brown County voters asked about authority of health officer on Nov. ballot

Published: Oct. 16, 2020 at 10:25 PM CDT
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - The power of health officers has come into question several times during this pandemic in counties across the state.

Now, a referendum question in Brown County is asking the community if the law should be changed to allow for more oversight when it comes to closing businesses.

Brown County Supervisor John Van Dyke has seen the drama play out at the state level, as Governor Tony Evers' administration faces lawsuit after lawsuit over its authority to issue emergency orders to combat the coronavirus.

“If every one of these decisions has to end up in the courts, then in my opinion we have a problem with the laws,” said Van Dyke.

That’s why he brought forward the non-binding referendum question on the November ballot.

The Brown County ballot asks: “Should Wisconsin State Statutes be amended to provide County Board of Supervisors with a mechanism to approve or overturn any actions taken by County Health Officers that impose county wide restrictions on citizens and/or businesses, or that require county wide closure of businesses?”

“I think some of the frustrations by constituents was that the county board could do something. and in reality we really can’t based on the way the statute is written,” said Van Dyke.

The county health officer is allowed to do what is “reasonable and necessary” to suppress a disease, according to state statutes, and can shut down a business on an individual level; but an overarching order is different.

“With a broad order, we seem to not have the enforcement ability, so that’s where we would need an ordinance or something else passed to give that enforcement ability,” said Brown County Health Officer, Anna Destree.

Destree says she has concerns about timing if she did need county board approval to act.

“I think where the risk is, that if there is a time when fast action is needed, that could potentially put it at risk,” said Destree.

Results would be taken to state lawmakers, but would not directly change any laws currently in place. A yes vote supports extra oversight on the health officer, while a no vote would make no changes to the statute.

If the law were to be changed, it would not take away any authority to act or make a decision.

“This is really kind of subsequent to that. Once those actions take place, then the County Board would have to decide if they even wanted to review that decision and if they do, they have the ability to uphold it, and have the ability to rescind it, is basically the way it’s structured,” said Van Dyke.

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