EAU CLAIRE (WQOW) - For over a month, the Eau Claire community has witnessed multiple press conferences, several protests and dozens of social media posts regarding the issue of a proposed city-county health ordinance. With the city council set to vote on the ordinance Tuesday, WQOW met with a range of concerned residents and major city officials and dug into the documents to answer the community's most pressing questions.
In order to grasp the discord in the city of clear water, it's important to start at the very beginning of the proposal.
It began back in May when the Eau Claire County Board of Health worked with the county to request the right to issue fines if an Eau Claire resident was not following restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of disease. In explaining the necessity of enforcement, Eau Claire city attorney Stephen Nick compared the fines to those of traffic citations.
"Sometimes everybody won't comply, and to get to that higher level of compliance that is needed to make sure everyone stops at a stop sign when they're expected to, or follows other basic rules for their own safety and for all our safety, you need additional enforcement," Nick said.
A month later, on August 17, following the strike-down of Governor Tony Evers' Safer-At-Home order, the Wisconsin Counties Association held a series of webinars to discuss how local health departments across the state should tackle the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and any future disease outbreaks.
"There was lots of conversation by a whole variety of people in Wisconsin around, 'how do we look at the authority of a local health officer in a communicable disease situation as odd as we are in?'" said Eau Claire City-County Health Director Lieske Giese.
With that guidance from the association, the Eau Claire city and county legal departments drafted the legislation for a proposed health ordinance, which, on September 14, the Board of Health reviewed.
Two days later, on September 16, the Eau Claire County Administration Committee reviewed the ordinance and approved it.
This brings us to the present day, where the next step is for the city council and the county board to review the ordinance and decide whether to deny or approve it.
Health Ordinance vs. Health Order
The ordinance itself has sparked plenty of concerns in the community, but before the introduction of that discord, it's necessary to grasp what the ordinance is comprised of.
The proposed local health ordinance is separate from a local health order, meaning the document currently up for a vote does not put make any new regulations, but rather sets the terms for new regulations.
Nick said the ordinance essentially serves as a map for future health orders.
"All things that aren't necessarily contrary to state law, and aren't different necessarily from we've been trying to do here locally, but documenting those so that we have a known procedure that we as public officials can clearly follow," Nick said.
Why is it being written now?
This clarification of a health order versus a health ordinance brings the break-down to the first major point of contention: why is this ordinance, that can apply to any future communicable disease concern, being written now, when the community is already in the middle of a communicable disease outbreak?
Giese said it comes down the fact that the health department's goal of prevention is being complicated by the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning standard prevention efforts are not enough to contain the virus.
"We have a disease that's more difficult to do the regular work that we do all the time in communicable disease efforts," Giese said. "In state statute, it actually gives the authority to a local health department official to do anything necessary to control the communicable disease. That's really a wide-open authority. What this ordinance does in the city and in the county, is it takes a really wide-open concept, anything that's "reasonable and necessary," and really puts some frames around it."
But those frames are still not specific enough for some concerned residents.
"If the state department of health services does not have this power at the state level, why does the county and city level want this power? We've never had it before and now it's deemed necessary?" questioned Kyle Yudes, a resident of Eau Claire and local insurance agent.
Yudes is among dozens of other residents that feel the timing of the proposal is too much of a coincidence, and that it's a gateway into more enforcement; something residents express, will damage the city's future prosperity.
Is excessive power being granted?
The next major concern posed by residents is whether or not excessive power is being given to the city-county health director.
In the proposed ordinance, it states that the local health officer, which is currently Eau Claire City-County Health Director Lieske Giese, may "do what is reasonable and necessary for the prevention and suppression of disease, including ordering isolation and quarantine consistent with Wisconsin statutes 252.06 and 252.07."
In those statutes, several sections deem that the local health officer may "require isolation of a patient," which is what leads many residents to fear an over-execution of power without clearly defined restrictions on ability.
"This really embellishes our health officer to do whatever they want because they use the terms, "deems necessary and reasonable," said Clare Krenzelok, an Eau Claire resident and stay-at-home mother of four.
However, city officials disagree with residents when it comes to how much power is granted; stressing that the ordinance itself was drafted to use checks and balances in order to keep the local health officer without excessive power.
"While it does allow prompt emergency response by true, an unelected official, but one that is vested with the obligation to try and take action in times of a contagious disease emergency such as this, at no time is there not legislative oversight, either through the city manager, if authorized by the city council in times of emergency, or by direct city council action if at any time they disagree with an action of the health officer," Nick said.
Is the ordinance written too broadly?
The third issue posed by residents is the broad terms written in the ordinance, which many say, is too vague for comfort.
Nick stressed the ordinance is taking an already vague Wisconsin statute and narrowing it down to keep residents safe and informed during potential health order enforcements.
"The state authorizing law simply the phrases, 'as is necessary and reasonable in time of a contagious disease or communicable disease emergency,'" Nick said. "This local ordinance goes further, again informed by the judicial decisions that we have to date, to actually establish substantial, additional standards. It creates a robust reporting requirement so the public is informed not only of the decision of the order but of the under-pinning; the reasons of those decisions."
For some residents, the creation of a health order due process isn't the main problem, but rather the fact that any local health officer would have the authority, whether restricted or not, to manage their personal health and restrict lifestyles in times of a communicable disease outbreak.
"I am absolutely, 1,000 percent, uncomfortable with an unelected health officer telling me what is reasonable and necessary for my child," Krenzelok said, voice shaking. "I don't want to overreact and say it's terrifying, but it literally shakes me to my core."
While Eau Claire residents have posed far more than just three points of concern, this list conglomerates the most frequently questioned aspects of the proposed ordinance. In addition, The City of Eau Claire has posted a list of frequently asked questions and subsequent answers regarding the ordinance.
The residents interviewed stressed the fact that they are not opposed to an ordinance, but rather, want a more defined piece of legislation that takes the community's opinions into consideration, something they feel has not happened with the current proposal.
"Let us come together, come to the table, with us as a community, and let's draw something up that we can all agree is reasonable and necessary," Krenzelok said.
Both Krenzelok and Yudes said if the ordinance is approved, they plan to move out of Eau Claire County.
The future of the ordinance proposal
What's next, then?
First, a public input session on the ordinance will be held Monday night at 7 p.m. during the Eau Claire City Council meeting. Then on Tuesday at 4 p.m., the council will vote whether or not to adopt the ordinance. On Oct. 22, the county board will also vote on the proposal.