All the Iroquois County Board members spoke in concern of the financial ramifications of continuing to keep the state closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This was addressed at Tuesday’s full board meeting, which was conducted by phone, and on the agenda was formulating a plan for opening up the county.
“Personally, I am in favor the county opening up,” said Iroquois County States Attorney Jim Devine; but, it’s not something the county, specifically the county board, can decide in this matter.
He said he received to review a proposal from county board members Monday to begin opening up Iroquois County, going against the governor’s executive order keeping many small businesses. “It seems very thoughtfully proposed and written,” he said. “The problem is the county doesn’t have the authority to order any business to open.” He said no one within government — county board, sheriff, public health, states attorney or other agency — can do such. “Our hands are tied, your hands are tied, as to what you as a county board can lawfully do. We can make recommendations, we can encourage our legislators and the governor to open sooner rather than later.”
The health department is independent of the county board, Devine reminded board members. And, he said, like it or not, the local health department gets its orders from Springfield. “That’s what they have to do, and if they don’t — if they decide to go rogue — then our local health department loses certification with the state of Illinois. And if they lose certification, they lose funding and we lose our local health department.”
The resolution, Devine said, “is essentially legally meaningless. There’s really nothing that can be done with this resolution to have any meaningful impact on local businesses in opening up the way we want them to. I wish it could be different but that’s the way I see it.”
County board member Mike McTaggart pointed out in what Devine said that there’s nothing to be done to force a business to open “but you can also choose not to force a business to close”.
“We close blind eyes to laws all the time,” McTaggart said, listing jaywalking as an example of something that’s not enforced. He said many other counties, states attorneys and sheriffs have stated “Look, we’re not going to do this; we’re not going to enforce that.” He asked if Iroquois County Board members could ask the same of the Iroquois County sheriff and states attorney.
“I’m very sympathetic to businesses doing the right thing, people using common sense,” Devine said.
He said there are places where he thinks the governor has overreached in his executive orders, “but nonetheless, there’s science behind what he’s advocating. He’s not doing this unilaterally; there’s a committee of very bright experts out there trying to do the right thing. There’s no one way in doing the right thing.”
“It’s probably not in the county board’s interest to officially decide to go against the governor’s orders,” said county board chairman John Shure. “There are better ways to do that.”
“What are the better ways?” asked McTaggart. “It would be great to have some leadership on that. What is the best way for us to not do what the governor wants but still get it done?”
County board vice chairman Lyle Behrends made a motion to find some sort of compromise: “The Iroquois County Board requests the Iroquois County Emergency Management [coordinator] to collaborate with local health authorities to develop a contingency plan should the governor’s Restore Illinois plan be declared invalid or unconstitutional.” He said, “The thinking behind this allows us to go through our county code book to see what we can do to help. It give us a mechanism to start the ball rolling, to see what we can do to put things in place as things reopen. There are some county ordinances which could be very restrictive on some of these businesses that have been closed, and it could financially hurt them if we don’t waive them.” This doesn’t reopen the county; it’s a plan for when the state does reopen, especially ready to use in the case that the governor’s Restore Illinois plan and/or executive orders are deemed not usable.
Board member Donna Crow said she’d like to see input from board members and from individuals in the county.
Shure said that would be something Eric Ceci, Iroquois County’s Emergency Management Agency coordinator, could decide.
Ceci said, “The emergency management agency in all of its plans seeks input from all its community partners, whether that’s private industry or commerce, health department, law enforcement and fire and 9-1-1 dispatch. The role of emergency management agency is to pull together a collective mind to make the best decision for all. If this is the direction the board wants to go, this is what I would do.”
Board member Sherry Johnson said she would be happy to help Ceci in working with business and community leaders, and she expressed concern making sure EMA was careful in following the state’s rules as to not affect its funding.
Behrends said the EMA coordinator reports to the policy and procedure committee, and a reasonable time to get this done would be May 27, the day before the committee meeting.
McTaggart said if this is the best solution the board could come up with, he would support it. “It may be that it’s our only legal option, but if you look at what a lot of other counties and organizations are doing throughout the state, I think we’re basically saying ‘we’re not going to do anything’. We’re just going to have a plan together hopefully, someday, when it’s ruled unconstitutional.”
Board member Charles Alt said this plan could be presented to the governor as a way for him to amend his plan in place. “Right now, we don’t have much choice.”
The board voted 19-0 for the plan to be made developed. Ernest Curtis did not attend the meeting.