An increasing number of jurisdictions in Colorado issued stay-at-home orders, culminating on March 26 with the implementation of Gov. Jared Polis’ statewide directive. Although such orders are designed to halt the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, some elected officials, in apparent contrast to their counterparts in other states, have taken to publicly criticizing the processes that led to them.
“Let me be clear, I am not happy with this order,” said Sen. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, that morning after the statewide restrictions began. “We are rural Colorado and our circumstances are much different than Denver.”
The previous day, six other state legislators whose districts include suburban Douglas County wrote a letter to the board of county commissioners protesting the Tri-County Health Department’s decision to institute their own shelter order. “As a result of that order, we urge you to terminate whatever contract exists between Douglas County and that organization,” wrote the two senators and four representatives, all Republicans.
They continued that the directive from TCHD, which represents Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, was a “heavy-handed application of governmental power.”
At the same time, Adams County Commissioner Eva Henry expressed frustration with Denver Mayor Michael Hancock on Twitter, saying that he “chose to blindside the region and announce ahead of everyone else.” Hancock unveiled Denver’s order on March 23, two days before Tri-County followed suit.
Nearly two dozen governors have issued varying degrees of stay-at-home orders on March 26. The level of dissatisfaction in Colorado, while low, does not mirror the experiences of other states.
“Here in Connecticut, everyone seems to be in support of the executive orders and general direction at this point,” said Joseph DeLong, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. “I’ve only heard one local elected official express any opposition, and he just felt it should go further and everything should be shut down in order to save lives.”
Wisconsin’s order went into effect on March 25, and Jerry Deschane of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities explained that “most of the local governments in Wisconsin are still digesting it. Some businesses and business associations have expressed frustration with the order, but I haven’t heard that from any local governments yet.”
Frustrations over lack of coordination
In Colorado, where directives were announced in rapid succession over a condensed timeline, officials’ complaints largely pointed to a faulty process, rather than disagreement with the policy goal.
“We’ve been a bit frustrated with this,” said El Paso County Commission Chair Mark Waller at the March 25 meeting, referring to Polis’ announcement earlier that day. “When the press conference happened, that was the first time that any of us had heard about this.”
The governor indicated previously that he was not inclined toward a statewide order, writing on Facebook that “the Grim Reaper” is a “far greater enforcement authority.” Conor Cahill, a spokesman for Polis, said that the administration has “regular check-ins with local public health agencies,” but did not say specifically whether he consulted with localities in advance about the order.
“We would have appreciated a call,” said Weld County Commissioner Scott James, who quickly added that he supported the Polis order. However, coordination with others “doesn’t seem to be his modus operandi.”
The abrupt announcement from Polis was in contrast to his Oregon counterpart, where Gov. Kate Brown held six conference calls with mayors of all municipalities and the League of Oregon Cities, said Mike Cully, executive director of the league.
“If anything, the outcry from local municipal leaders,” he said, “was that Gov. Brown was not moving fast enough to put something equivalent to a ‘shelter in place’ order into place.” Had she not held the telephone meetings prior to her Monday order, Cully predicted, “there likely would have been some who think she went too far.”
Cahill said that in Polis’s case, he spoke personally with “key municipal leaders,” among others, before issuing the order.
“He’s not consulting with county commissioners, and I don’t think I’m the only commissioner who feels that way,” countered Barbara Kirkmeyer, another of Weld County’s commissioners. She said that health departments operate at the county level, which made it all the more imperative to consult with county, rather than municipal, leadership.
Adams County’s Henry was disappointed in the lack of solidarity between jurisdictions.
“It would have shown collaboration. It would have shown community,” she said. “But on the bright side: for a few hours, Adams County liquor stores could get more business.”
Douglas County protests
On March 24, the nine board members for Tri-County, who represent their respective counties’ commissions, voted to give the executive director authority to approve a stay-at-home order. One of Arapahoe County’s representatives abstained, citing opposition from some of his commissioners.
The state lawmakers’ letter to the Douglas County commissioners applauded two of the members, not mentioned by name, for opposing the stay-at-home order. The legislators deemed as “unacceptable” Tri-County’s members’ rejection of those commissioners’ wishes.
Lora L. Thomas, the District III commissioner, said that she was one of the two who asked the county’s Tri-County representatives to vote against the order. Roger Partridge of District II, she said, was the other opponent. (Partridge did not respond to a request for comment.)
“I don’t think that I’ve ever called them and said, ‘this is how you need to vote on an issue,’” Thomas said. “But something of this magnitude — to have appointees, unelected bureaucrats, taking an action such as this, it’s wrong.”
She clarified that she supports the governor’s order because he is an elected official, and added that she is not critical of Tri-County executive director John M. Douglas Jr. However, she believed the order was not tailored to her county and that the commissioners would review the state legislators’ suggestion to cut ties with the department.
“I would have liked our citizens to have an opportunity to take personal responsibility and manage things for themselves,” Thomas said. “We have people that live on 35 acres. We just have a different kind of community.”
Still, that view does not appear to be the prevailing one among local officials. When asked how many municipal officers were displeased with the stay-at-home directives, Kevin Bommer of the Colorado Municipal League said, “not a soul.”
He added that “unlike some of the loud responses that occurred from some state elected officials, every conversation that I have been a part of with municipal officials is just about getting the job done for citizen needs under the circumstances.”