After strong words of opposition from Becker County Attorney Brian McDonald, the Becker County Board on Tuesday, May 19, rejected a resolution demanding that the power to issue and implement COVID-19 emergency orders “be restored” to counties and local government agencies, and declaring that the county would effectively refuse to enforce statewide executive orders affecting “the rights of law-abiding citizens to keep their businesses open.”
The resolution, which would make Becker County into a “Constitutional and Business Friendly Community,” was championed by Board Chairman Ben Grimsley. Early in the discussion Commissioner Larry Knutson said he also supported it.
Commissioner Barry Nelson said some of the language in the resolution was too extreme for him, but he would support an alternative resolution.
“We really have to support our business community, or a lot will be failing,” said Commissioner John Okeson.
Okeson said he had considered supporting the resolution, until Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison obtained a restraining order Monday against a Stearns County bar owner who planned to open for business in violation of an emergency executive order by Gov. Tim Walz. That bar owner could face a $25,000 fine.
“The real problem is this (proposed ordinance) gives a false sense of security to county business owners. It doesn’t stop the state or the city from stepping in and prosecuting,” McDonald said. “Everyone is for the businesses here, it’s tough on them,” he added. “But as a matter of law, the governor’s order stands, and I don’t think it’s wise to disobey the law.” Governors have historically had the right to take emergency action during a health crisis, McDonald said.
The county would also put itself at liability risk if it approved the ordinance, McDonald said, citing advice from a statewide association of Minnesota counties.
“The consequences of non-enforcement of (statewide) COVID-19 orders are unknown and untested,” McDonald said.
The proposed ordinance “says we will not enforce the governor’s order,” he added. That means the county may be assuming liability for legal claims, and the county’s insurance provider, the Minnesota Counties Intergovernmental Trust, may deny coverage, forcing county taxpayers to foot the bill, he said.
The county board voted down the resolution, 3-2, with Nelson, Okeson and Don Skarie voting against it and Grimsley and Knutson voting in support. The board then united to support a different resolution encouraging Walz to reopen Minnesota businesses, including bars, restaurants and hair salons, no later than June 1. The resolution also encourages the governor to allow counties to decide when best to reopen.
That resolution was approved unanimously.
“I will support (this resolution),” said Skarie. “I didn’t last time. Not that I don’t support businesses, but the time wasn’t right last time. I am concerned about a second wave (of COVID-19 cases) but if people do their part -- wear masks in stores and use social distancing, I think this is manageable.”
In a discussion later in the meeting, Sheriff Todd Glander told commissioners that “I was sworn to uphold the Constitution and that’s what I intend to do.”
The law allows for discretion on the part of law enforcement officers and prosecutors, he added, but “if something is extreme and they’re doing it purposely not to be safe,” the sheriff’s office will investigate and send the report to the county attorney’s office for consideration of charges, Glander said.
“If we don’t enforce it, there’s an agency (the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office) that can bring civil penalties,” Glander reminded commissioners.
The sheriff's office has so far handled just a few calls, including some from churches, regarding the state shut-down order, Glander said.