Friday, May 07, 2021

Let's strive to preserve local control, not undo it

| February 21, 2021 12:00 AM

Preserving local government control of issues that matter most to their communities has long been a battle cry for many politicians, and with good reason. It makes sense that local officials understand local issues in a way state and federal government often cannot.

This premise seems lost, however, on our state lawmakers who seem hell-bent on ramrodding a bill through this session that would prohibit cities, counties and local health boards from making decisions they know to be in the best interest of their local constituents.

House Bill 257 is one of numerous bills introduced in the Montana Legislature this year that aim to limit the authority of public health officials, who have been accused of overreach for their efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The Republican-backed House bill would nullify much of Whitefish’s mask ordinance and prohibit cities, counties and local health boards from adopting similar requirements in the future.

The legislation, a knee-jerk reaction to perceived local overreach that could harm businesses, would prohibit local governments from taking any “retributive action” against businesses that don’t enforce mask rules among their patrons, including fines, civil lawsuits and criminal charges.

We understand wanting to protect businesses, but this kind of legislation seems baffling when we’re still in the throes of a pandemic that has killed 1,339 people statewide and 74 in our own county.

Flathead County Health Officer Joe Russell told the Inter Lake this week in no uncertain terms that state legislators should not tamper with local governments’ ability to establish and enforce public-health measures.

“The Legislature seems to be doing everything they can to click off control measures that are doing good, and I just don’t get it,” Russell said.

Tim Burton, director of the Montana League of Cities and Towns, which represents all 127 of the state’s incorporated municipalities, also doesn’t get it. He testified against the bill, saying it wouldn’t be appropriate to overhaul long-standing public health laws while the pandemic is still in full swing.

Burton wisely suggested Montanans needs to get the pandemic behind them and then can “sit down and thoroughly review what worked and didn’t work.”

It’s ironic that this push to strip local control flies in the face of what Gov. Greg Gianforte said about allowing local control after he decided to lift the state’s mask mandate. While the governor declined to comment on HB 257 during a statewide press conference this week, it’s noteworthy that he also said this, referring to his decision to lift the mask mandate: “I do think best government is made by local decisions, and that’s part of the reason why we transferred the authority back to the public health officials.”

If this piece of legislation passes — and it likely will — it will be up to Gianforte to keep his word and veto it. If the governor truly believes in local control, as he's said many times, it’s time for him to speak up and hold true to his word.