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Citizens stand up, speak out

By M.D. Kittle 

Wisconsin Spotlight | Oct. 22, 2020

MADISON —Winnebago County residents turned out and stood up this week in opposition to a proposal that would give an unelected health bureaucrat broader power over their lives. 

Some 300 citizens logged on to the Winnebago County Board meeting via Zoom Tuesday. About 40 of them gave supervisors an earful over an amendment that would allow county Health Officer Doug Gieryn to seek “special inspection warrants” and fine violators $500 per incident in the name of checking the spread of COVID-19 and other communicable disease. 

The board tabled the proposed amendment for a month, allowing supervisors more time to examine the updated document. Some board members complained that they hadn’t received a copy. 

“I would have liked to have seen them vote it down but I’m not sure the votes were there,” said state Rep. Michael Schraa (R-Oshkosh), who attended the meeting. “I think it opens up a lot of eyes when you get 300 people on a Zoom meeting.” 

Board Chairman Shiloh Ramos said he’s never seen such turnout in all his years in government. It’s actually a continuing theme. Residents across Wisconsin are pushing back against overreaching local governments. 

Hundreds turned out this past summer to oppose a similar proposal in Winnebago County. Health officials and the liberal county executive revamped the amendment, insisting it is needed to stop the rise of COVID-19 cases in the county. 

Violators could face fines of as much as $500 per infraction, and the health department could suspend the licence of any business registered with the agency.

Perhaps more troubling is the “special inspection warrant” that gives a health officer the authority to enter private properties.

The proposed amendment draws from state statue that has come under fire amid the pandemic and the government abuses that have accompanied it. It allows the health officer to “take measures to prevent, suppress, and control COVID-19 in Winnebago County Health Department’s jurisdiction, coupled with authorizing the Winnebago County Health Officer, his/her designees, and law enforcement to issue penalties for violating state and local laws designed to suppress communicable diseases, will help contain the impact of COVID-19 in Winnebago County.”

The open-ended nature of the language should concern anyone who values civil liberties.

Gieryn would have to seek approval from the board before issuing any order, but supervisors in counties with such orders have often deferred to their health “experts” on COVID-19 response measures.

For now, the unelected bureaucrat will have to wait for expanded power. 

Several Winnebago County citizens reminded board members that they work for the voters. If they pass the amendment, supervisors who have gotten used to running unopposed will face opponents in the spring elections, some warned.  

“This is what government is supposed to be like,” Schraa said of Tuesday’s turnout. “This is how good government happens, when people are engaged. It sends a loud message to their elected officials.”

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