Butler County governments tested powers during past year of pandemic, protests

Officials in Butler County and throughout Ohio faced tests of government authority in the past year while responding to the coronavirus pandemic and protests following the death of Minneapolis man George Floyd.

Some of those lessons were also about the limits of election officials’ power when dealing with health departments.

Butler County elected officials heard public concerns when Gov. Mike DeWine and the Ohio Department of Health instituted orders that limited business activity, mandated masks and set a curfew to battle the pandemic. The commissioners and others repeatedly told their constituency they had no power to override decisions handed down from Columbus.

The state legislature last week overrode Gov. Mike DeWine’s veto of a bill that gives the legislature more oversight in public health emergencies and state health orders.

Butler County Commissioner T.C. Rogers said it has been frustrating.

“We still don’t have the control even with this bill unless we would decide to be adversarial...,” Rogers said. “We are prohibited from putting any undue influence on the health commissioner.”

The health departments in Butler County, Hamilton and Middletown wielded the most power throughout the pandemic locally. Usually the county commissioners are perceived as the most powerful county leaders, but Prosecutor Mike Gmoser told the Journal-News that wasn’t the case with the coronavirus pandemic.

“The commissioners have the authority over the purse,” Gmoser said. “They do not have the authority over the directors of the board of health. So Jen Bailer, as far as the county health district is concerned, she is the one who had the power to make orders and enforce the orders the state director imposed through the governor.”

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The health commissioners have quarantine capabilities and the power to enforce restrictions on businesses and mandatory mask-wearing, which was ordered by the state health department on July 23. Butler County instituted a mandatory mask order on July 7 because of high positivity rates.

Bailer’s spokeswoman, Erin Smiley, said the department has issued three violation notices to businesses during the pandemic for mask and curfew violations. Middletown has issued two advisories but no citations, and Hamilton officials did not respond. The notices warn business owners they face prosecution or a 24-hour shutdown.

DeWine spokesman Dan Tierney said the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation has been inspecting non-liquor-related businesses for COVID-19 protocol violations throughout the state. The BWC has inspected 38,409 businesses, and 38,168 were in compliance. The violators were given warnings for mask and or signage non-compliance.

“Our first thing we always want to do, and I know many local health districts follow the same philosophy, is you want to get somebody in compliance,” Tierney told the Journal-News. “We don’t immediately go for a sanction or fine or prosecution as the first thing, what does that mean usually, if somebody’s not wearing a mask you ask them to put a mask on.”

The Ohio Investigative Unit of the Highway Patrol and the Liquor Control Commission handle establishments that sell alcohol. The OIU has issued three citations in Butler County, including two for selling after hours.

Sheriff Richard Jones and some police chiefs declared they would not be the “mask police” when the face coverings became mandatory and also would not search out curfew violators due to manpower issues.

Jones called a 10 p.m. curfew instituted by the state in November “ridiculous.”

“This will lead to an arrest and someone will get hurt or worse,” he said. “It will bring out the criminal in people who are not criminals.”

The city of Oxford is the only large community that has passed specific local ordinances prohibiting mass gatherings of more than10 non-household members and requiring masks in public. Monroe considered and rejected a mask ordinance last summer.

Police have issued 26 mass gathering citations and eight mask citations since the ordinances began. Mask ordinance violators face a $100 fine, and mass gathering ordinance violators face a $500 fine for the first violation and $1,000 fine for any subsequent violations.

“Having a large student population had something to do with it,” said Oxford City Manager Doug Elliott.

The majority of Butler County governments haven’t passed any legislation pertaining to the pandemic except to declare states of emergency so their city managers and administrators could react. For example, the commissioners’ resolution allows County Administrator Judi Boyko to spend up to $100,000 without prior commissioner approval on COVID-related goods and services. Normally her legal spending limit is $25,000.

The governor and the state have been hit with several lawsuits over actions some saw as overreaching and violating personal freedoms. One case that was recently dismissed sought to retire the mask mandate and other restrictions that “fired a missile at our Constitutional and God given rights and instead went down the road of authoritarianism,” according to court documents.

The pandemic also raised the question of the commissioners’ powers last fall when all three were out with the virus at the same time. They were forced to cancel one meeting.

Under a worst-case scenario, if two commissioners were not available to perform their duties, state statutes install the county coroner, in this instance Dr. Lisa Mannix, as a temporary commissioner.

If there was one silver lining to the pandemic, Liberty Twp. Trustee Tom Farrell said it was the state sanctioning virtual meetings. Local governments are slowly returning to in-person meetings but many like Liberty will also provide virtual access they hadn’t previously.

“We are constantly trying to prove to everyone that we are 100% transparent, but people don’t always seem to perceive it that way,” Farrell said adding everyone can now attend their meetings and view all governmental actions without having to leave their homes.

Not directly tied to the pandemic but certainly an unusual move, the West Chester Twp. trustees installed a temporary curfew last summer after they got wind a large crowd of protesters were headed their way from Cincinnati. The trustees held an emergency virtual meeting as the rally was going on at the West Chester Clock Tower to honor Floyd, the Minnesota man killed by police. The 10 p.m. curfew never had to enforced.

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