Jackson County takes a look at health regulations

Jeff Fox

Jackson County Legislator Crystal Williams says she plans to withdraw and then rework and resubmit an ordinance to put in writing the county’s powers, under state law, to carry out its public-health responsibilities. 

Williams, D-Kansas City, said she hears the concerns of some fellow legislators and wants to work those out rather than keep the issue on the Legislature's agenda for now and expose legislators to the public rage that has come their way. 

“They’re calling me Hitler’s daughter,” she said. Others are calling her a communist. 

“It makes no sense,” she said. 

Why such opposition? 

“It's that we're talking about public health at all. That's what I'm hearing,” Williams told The Examiner. 

Williams’ aim is to set down in writing the powers that the county has under state law already. A Cole County judge’s ruling last month on decisions by unelected officials – a decision Williams called “ridiculous” – reached beyond that immediate issue and cast doubt on all public health rules in Missouri. The county is trying the challenge that ruling in court. 

“If rules and regs do not hold, the state will not operate,” Williams said. 

“Perhaps unintentionally ... the judgment from Cole County severely hampered public health's ability to enact isolation and quarantine measures when necessary to control all communicable disease,” Ray Dlugolecki, the county’s acting health director, told legislators this week. “And this includes disease like hepatitis, pertussis, measles, mumps, rubella. It, in essence, would even limit our ability to respond to Ebola like we did in 2015” – a successful intervention in the Kansas City area, he pointed out. 

Dlugolecki said the county handles 9,000 reports of communicable diseases annually, from hepatitis A at a restaurant to viruses in nursing homes. Pertussis outbreaks at day cares are a common example. So is tuberculosis, which is highly communicable and increasingly resistant to drugs. In almost every instance, he said, people with those diseases and who need to isolate themselves willingly agree to do to, but he said the county needs to the power to enforce that in the rare times it’s needed in order to protect the public. 

Legislators said they understand that but expressed concerns about those powers being vested in one person, the health director.  

“This is a lot of authority to give to one person,” said Legislator Theresa Cass Galvin, R-Lee's Summit, 

Dlugolecki noted that what Williams proposes adds no new authority for the health direction and “nothing is new or added in regards to the Health Department's authority ...” 

Legislator Tony Miller, D-Lee's Summit, said civil rights need to be protected. 

“Once again,” he said “I think if you're going to be deprived of liberty or property, there's got to be due process.” 

“I agree with that,” Williams said. 

Williams stressed that the language she has proposed is standard and is in use elsewhere. 

“It's pretty much accepted public-health language, but of course anything right now – nothing's accepted, period. So we have to rehash everything that's been previously accepted in the universe,” she said. 

She said many who are pressuring legislators on this issue "are lying and mischaracterizing what’s going on.” 

Legislator Jalen Anderson, D-Blue Springs, stressed the need to look to the next crisis, beyond COVID. 

“This is not something to take control away from parents, away from schools, away from the individual,” he said. “This is talking about, if we are put back in a situation where we must meet the health crisis at the time, then what can be done?” 

But Williams also underlined the health needs of the moment and the political response to that.  

“I'm also going to point out,” she said, “that part of the reason we're doing this is because decades-old – almost probably century-old – norms of public health have been upended because of what's being done out of Jefferson City and to some degree through our attorney general in challenging what has been the public-health norms of being able to cope as a community and as a society with public-health emergencies.” 

She continued. “So we are just trying to figure out how we can do things on a local level to protect in particular right now children, particularly when you look at the fact that Jackson County – other than Lee's Summit and Kansas City and maybe some of our other urban schools – is nothing but a patchwork in terms of protecting kids while we're in the midst of what most of us would characterize as another surge and a public-health emergency.” 

She has repeatedly expressed concerns coming from parents in the Blue Springs School District, which relaxed its COVID rules in a special board meeting the very day the County Legislature dropped its mask mandate last fall. She said she’s highlighted Blue Springs “because the school board did it because of a handful of screaming parents.” 

More generally, Williams says there is “unfettered disease spread in Missouri because we have no leadership.” 

But she lays much of this at the feet of Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who has gone to court to oppose mask mandates and other public-health measures across the state. Schmitt is running for the U.S. Senate and faces several competitors in the Republican primary. 

“That’s what this is about,” she said. “… And my county is being held hostage.”