GREEN BAY – Voters in Brown County will see a referendum on the Nov. 3 ballot asking whether they support a change in state statute that governs the powers of local health officials. 

But what does it all mean?

Here’s what you need to know about the question and how it ended up on your ballot. 

What’s the question?

The question appears on the ballot as follows:

Should Wisconsin State Statutes be amended to provide County Boards 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?

It’s only an advisory referendum, meaning the results will be conveyed to state lawmakers and won’t produce any changes by itself. 

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What does the law say now?

Wisconsin statute allows public health officers to do “what is reasonable and necessary” to prevent or suppress disease in their jurisdiction. That includes the ability to forbid public gatherings in public facilities or privately owned entities like bars and restaurants, according to a guide from the Wisconsin Counties Association.

That power came under a microscope after the state Supreme Court threw out the safer-at-home order in May and largely left regulation to local governments.

Attorney General Josh Kaul wrote that the ruling limiting state Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm’s powers doesn’t impact the authority of local health officers to issue orders that affect the general public, such as directing people to stay home. But in the wake of that decision, the counties association cautioned that similar local orders could be invalidated if challenged. 

“For this reason, it may be prudent to have local health officer orders impacting the public at large and implementing mandatory measures … be subject to review by the county board,” the guide states. “Such a review process is not required by statute, but doing so would directly address the Palm Court’s concerns and aid in the ‘reasonable and necessary’ analysis.”

Amid that uncertainty, Brown County rescinded a local safer-at-home order it issued in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling. Officials in Dane County and Milwaukee counties stuck with their own orders.

Where did the referendum come from?

The Brown County Board voted in August to put the question on November’s ballot after the issue was brought forward by board member John Van Dyck, who represents Ledgeview and other areas to the southeast. Van Dyck contends the change would clarify state law and provide a check on the authority of local health officers. 

“If the situation is, to me, urgent enough, then the health officer should be able to come before a county board of 26 supervisors and explain the situation and convince them that it’s the right decision to be made,” he said.

Van Dyck said the health officer could still make emergency decisions, but the proposed change to state law would allow the County Board to take up actions as it sees fit. Giving one person the authority to make broad rulings is “a little extreme,” he said.

“They also are not experts in some of these fields,”  Van Dyck said. “Many of them have nursing degrees or nursing backgrounds, so I wouldn’t say that they’re experts in the situation that’s occurring right now.”

Is anyone opposed to it?

Yes. Some officials say the referendum question politicizes a public health crisis and argue a change to state law would leave decisions to governing bodies with no background in medicine. 

“I think that health experts must be allowed to speak the truth and thus educate the public,” said board member and retired nurse Joan Brusky. “They need to give directives that we may or may not want to hear.”

Board member Lindsay Dorff, who voted against the measure, said she generally supports referenda as an opportunity to hear from voters but believes this one poses too many problems.

“Those positions were designed specifically to be insulated from politics,” she said. 

Health Officer Anna Destree, for her part, said her primary concern is that the question will be misunderstood. She said the referendum refers to broad orders and not individual incidents, such as an establishment being shut down because of a human health hazard.

“I would not want the general public thinking that each time we had to take action on an individual level, that we would need to get county board approval to do so,” she said. 

Contact Haley BeMiller at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @haleybemiller.

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