JEFFERSON — Many Jefferson County officials remain amazed by the July 14 board of supervisors meeting that drew at least 561 people, many of whom were — in the opinions of some county leaders — misinformed about a proposed ordinance relating to the duties of the health officer.
Some thought the proposed ordinance would give the health officer too much power over their personal lives, residences and businesses.
Jefferson County Board Chairman Steve Nass took time this week to address his feelings about the meeting and add clarification to a July 16 article.
“The proposed ordinance did not expand nor change any powers of the health officer. They all remain — and have been in place in some form — for 115 years under state statute,” Nass said. “The question was, ‘Did the Supreme Court ruling in May require us to take the state statute and codify it into a county ordinance?’ We decided, ’No.’”
Nass said the statute is “clearly constitutional.” Some members of the public had voiced their opinion that it was not.
“The only thing different in our proposed ordinance was that we included an appeals process, which we felt was an improvement from the state statute,” Nass said.
According to the chairman, originally, after the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling in May, many county corporation counsels and district attorneys statewide, along with the Wisconsin Counties Association, had concerns. They were worried that counties might not be able to continue to enforce the state statute as they have over the last 115 years and as the the county is obligated to do, without putting the statute in ordinance form.
“Thus, this action by many counties statewide,” Nass said. “There was no expansion, or change in powers, over those already granted to county health officers in State Statute 252. Over time, legal opinions evolved, although mixed, as to the court’s true intent. It was our opinion the court did not intend to limit local authority with their ruling, so we decided to withdraw the ordinance as unneeded, and continue to follow the state statute as we have for at least 115 years.”
A lof of the members of the crowd that gathered at the Fair Park Activity Center July 14 were upset. Many shouted at the board, while others spent the first half-hour of the session telling supervisors that they did not want the county intruding on their lives in the COVID-19 outbreak, or at any other time.
“I think people were upset for several reasons,” Nass said. “First, they were upset because folks are just scared — for their health, their kids, their livelihoods — and needed to vent.”
Nass also said there was “massive confusion” as to what the question presented to the board actually was.
“And this was fueled by a plethora of dubious social media sites and posts containing misinformation and disinformation — the source of which I don’t know, nor do I understand the motivation,” he said, adding it appears to have been political.
“I don’t understand who gains from this disinformation campaign. I certainly would have been angry, too, if the the information distributed to these citizens was actually true,” he continued. “I fielded many phone calls and emails from concerned citizens, and once I explained the truth and essence of the issue to them, they were quite satisfied that this was not a heinous plot. Unfortunately, some folks did not investigate beyond false Facebook postings — a warning to not believe everything one reads on the internet.”
Nass said that as far as the appeals process to the board of health, the county added that to the proposed ordinance as a “local failsafe mechanism,” to provide oversight by an appointed and elected board, “as is customary among all our county committees.”
At this point, Nass said, county leaders do not feel there are any ramifications to the county by the withdrawal of the ordinance.
“We will continue to operate, as we have for the last 115 years, under State Statute 252 until the courts tell us otherwise,” he said.
Nass said he understands the anger of the crowd.
“It was guided by a disinformation campaign,” he said. “I can’t speak for individual members of the board, but I do feel that several board members did not, initially, fully comprehend the question presented, either, and that’s on me. I need to do a better job in their education as well. This was a lesson learned in my first two months as county board chair.”