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The Piscataquis County commissioners — James White, Andrew Torbett and Wayne Erkkinen — recently passed a “resolution of protest” decrying actions taken by Gov. Janet Mills during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, an indisputable public health emergency that has now claimed over 400,000 lives nationwide and over 500 here in Maine.
We don’t take issue with local officials criticizing the state’s chief executive. If they have concerns about how state policies are impacting their constituents, it’s their right and responsibility to try to have those concerns heard. But concerns about local control are not an excuse to lose control of basic facts. That’s what these three county officials have done with this embarrassing document.
“Whereas, the Governor has repeatedly refused to allow the legislature to convene, review, and address the impact of her rulings upon the free people the legislature represents,” the commissioners say at one point in their resolution. This is factually and constitutionally bunk.
Mills has not refused to allow the Legislature to convene. In fact, the Legislature is back in session now, as stipulated by the timing set in the Maine Constitution. Under that same constitution, both Maine’s governor and lawmakers have the ability to convene a special session. While Mills didn’t reconvene the Legislature in 2020, she didn’t prevent lawmakers from doing so, either.
It was the Legislature, specifically Republican legislators, who twice declined to reconvene in 2020 after bipartisan agreement to adjourn early in March at the outset of the pandemic. There was plenty of finger pointing between lawmakers over that failure to reconvene, but it wasn’t Mills who “refused to allow” them to return to work in Augusta.
People can take issue with the steps Mills has taken to slow the spread of COVID-19. They can raise concerns about the state statute that provides her with emergency powers, and debate whether it should be changed. But until the Legislature changes it or a court strikes it down as unconstitutional, it is the law. That’s generally how things work in our constitutional republic.
The resolution also spreads falsehoods about COVID-19.
“Whereas, the same research shows that face coverings, while not preventing the virus, cause respiratory disease and pneumonia, with far worse devastation to the populace than the virus itself,” might be the biggest whopper of them all from the resolution. This assertion has been repeatedly debunked.
A reporter asked Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah about that mask claim at a recent media briefing, and Shah didn’t mince words.
“Every single word in the sentence you just uttered is false,” Shah said. “Indeed if it were true we would see widespread respiratory viruses and pneumonia in the millions of healthcare workers who wear face coverings every single day and we don’t.”
If their misinformation wasn’t enough, the commissioners also managed to include some xenophobia while they were at it by referring to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan Virus.” There are ways to talk about the origins of the virus and the need to hold the Chinese government accountable for its delay in sharing information with the rest of the world without alienating people of Asian descent — like many of the international students who attend Foxcroft Academy and help support the Piscataquis County economy.
In this and in many other instances, the commissioners’ resolution was self-defeating. While this document purported to stand up for the local businesses and community members negatively impacted by the pandemic — and the hurt across Maine has been real — the falsehoods and rhetoric contained within it distract and detract from any actual point the commissioners were trying to get across.
To make matters even worse, the commissioners also likely violated Maine’s open access laws by developing the resolution via email and phone calls rather than in public view, and unanimously adopting it on Jan.13 without a public meeting. To quote from the state’s Frequently Asked Questions page about Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, “E-mail or other communication among the members of a body that is used as a substitute for deliberations or decisions which should properly take place at a public meeting may likely be considered a ‘meeting’ in violation of the statutory requirements for open meetings and public notice.”
They also failed to list the signing of the resolution on the agenda for their Jan. 19 meeting. And when some of their constituents tried to protest the protest resolution while following the proceeding via Zoom, White shut them off.
Despite all of these shortcomings, the three commissioners each signed their name to this flawed document at the meeting this week. Torbett said he wrote it and that it was meant to protest what he views as a lack of representation of his county’s concerns in Mills’ COVID-19 orders. He also said the point was not to create controversy.
If he and his fellow commissioners would like to avoid controversy in the future, we suggest leaving out the falsehoods and avoiding likely freedom of access violations. It should go without saying that their constituents deserve county officials who operate based on facts and in accordance with state law.