Traverse City News and Events

GT County Commissioners Pass Resolution Denouncing MDHHS Order

By Beth Milligan | Jan. 21, 2021

Grand Traverse County commissioners voted 5-2 Wednesday to pass a resolution denouncing the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) statewide pause order, as well as opposing the use of county funds to enforce violations. The resolution also encourages Sheriff Tom Bensley and Prosecuting Attorney Noelle Moeggenberg to make the issue their “lowest priority.” Bensley and Moeggenberg strenuously opposed the resolution, both saying it undermined the independence of their offices and Moeggenberg warning it could cause businesses to pursue actions that would result in license suspensions or legal prosecution.

Commissioner Brad Jewett asked commissioners to approve the proposed “pandemic resolution,” which states that the MDHHS order restricting some types of business and individual activities lacks the “legislative support of the democratically elected representatives, having been initiated unilaterally and unconstitutionally by the governor of Michigan.” The order has “disallowed any degree of personal accountability,” according to the resolution language, and “placed undue burden and restrictions on local businesses and local employees.”

Jewett said he proposed the resolution because of what he perceived as inequalities in the MDHHS order, such as big box stores being allowed to operate with “just shy of 7,200 people” in them while small eateries are closed for in-person dining. “That's kind of a slap in the face to restaurants that might have 20 people in the restaurant,” he said. Jewett disagreed with the act of “classifying people” as essential or non-essential, saying all employees are important, and that leaders have been ignoring issues such as rising domestic violence rates, drug overdoses, and suicides during the pandemic. “It can be attributed to these stay-at-home orders,” he said. Jewett also questioned the efficacy of masks, saying data was not available on how many mask wearers still become infected with coronavirus. “If the good Lord wanted us to wear a mask, we would have been created with a mask on our face,” he said.

The resolution also states that the county commission “does not support the expenditure of any county funds for the purpose of arrest and prosecution of any person accused of violating MDHHS emergency orders regarding COVID-19, and encourages the Grand Traverse County Sheriff's Department and the Grand Traverse County Prosecutor's Office to make this the lowest priority.” The document concludes by calling on citizens to “act responsibly with regards to others while determining for themselves what is best” regarding safety protocols, and by encouraging local businesses to “use their own good judgment to operate in a manner which minimizes risk to patrons while protecting the health and welfare of their business, care for their employees, and the community.”

All five Republican commissioners supported the resolution, including Commissioner Darryl Nelson, who said that “small businesses, especially those in the hospitality sector, have suffered enormous and unfair damage” during the shutdown. He emphasized that the resolution “does not encourage anyone to violate any state pandemic orders,” nor does it prevent law enforcement from enforcing violations – it just deprioritizes the issue. Commissioner Penny Morris said that society has become “out of balance” and that the MDHHS order was requiring employees who are on “typically the lowest end of the pay scale” to surrender their right to earn a living wage. “That's not fair,” she said. “It's not even decent.”

The commission’s two Democratic members – Commissioners Besty Coffia and Bryce Hundley – opposed the resolution. Hundley said that leaders are “trying to do the best in an awful situation to keep people healthy” and that “opening businesses back up isn’t going to get the businesses back” to sustainability if customers stay away anyway because of safety fears. Coffia called the resolution “political posturing” and said that while it was “inarguable that our small businesses have been grossly impacted” by the pandemic, the resolution wouldn’t change that reality. She said commissioners should instead lobby the state and federal government for “substantive relief” to help businesses, a path she said other countries have successfully pursued.

Residents were also divided over the resolution, with public comment lasting nearly two hours at Wednesday’s meeting. Joe Welsh, owner of downtown ice cream shop Milk & Honey, said that if commissioners and other groups didn’t take a stand against the MDHHS order, “this is going to go on forever. We have no redress, we have nothing. We have these edicts passed down to us that are clearly unconstitutional.” Dr. Rick Murphy, who is listed as a local chiropractor, questioned the science being cited by health officials and told commissioners “the whole purpose here is to sell a vaccine and create division within our country.” Other residents opposed the pandemic resolution, with Traverse City Commissioner Christie Minervini telling the board that as “elected officials, it is your responsibility to protect the public health and safety; this proposed resolution does the opposite.” Dr. David McGreaham, the former chief medical officer at Munson Medical Center, said that while the resolution appeared to tell individuals and businesses they could make up their own minds about whether to wear masks, he believed “masks need to be mandatory until we get this thing under control.”

Though commissioners ultimately voted 5-2 to pass the resolution, they did so over the objections of Bensley and Moeggenberg, whose offices are mentioned in the resolution language. Bensley said he was “disappointed” Jewett did not reach out to him or Moeggenberg to discuss the resolution in advance, and said that the process law enforcement and health department officials have been using to handle MDHHS order violations “has worked very well.” Bensley told the board to “let us do our jobs independent of pressure and influence from the county board of commissioners.” Moeggenberg shared similar remarks, saying that the “MDHHS order is a statewide emergency order that frankly no one on a local level has the authority to amend.”

“There are many local issues that deserve the attention of this board, and it's my belief that time and energy would be better spent on those,” she said. Moeggenberg said the resolution amounted to an attempt to transfer power from her office to the board of commissioners and could “create a very dangerous precedent.” The prosecuting attorney’s office “is and must remain independent from biases created by financial or political pressures,” Moeggenberg said, adding that “adopting a resolution that attempts to influence the charging decisions of this office in any way opens the door to undue influence and threatens that independence, and sadly could create the impression with the public that the decisions made by my office are political. They are not.” Moeggenberg warned that regardless of the resolution’s passing, businesses that violate the MDHHS order could face license sanctions and prosecution for doing so.

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