The attorney general’s office has sent the mayor of Oregon City a letter threatening criminal and civil action over claims he planned to allow businesses to reopen in violation of Governor Kate Brown’s stay-home order.
Mayor Dan Holladay’s supposed plans were based on his “mistaken belief” that the governor lacked the legal authority to force businesses to close during a state of emergency, according to the April 24 letter signed by Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum.
“I send this letter in the hope that you will reconsider your approach without the need for more formal action,” the letter said. “I remind you that there are significant legal repercussions for violating the governor’s order.”
Rosenblum’s letter lays out the various legal statutes that she says supports the governor’s authority to enact a state of emergency in response to a pandemic and, during a state of emergency, to take various actions to protect public health — including closing or restricting businesses.
It also sets forth what she described as the governor’s authority to utilize “all police powers” to effect her state of emergency declaration, as well as enforce state laws that protect “the public’s health, safety, and general welfare.”
“Closing certain businesses to stem the spread of COVID-19 clearly protects the public’s health and safety during the ongoing global pandemic,” she said. “The governor’s order is lawful, and that order remains in full force and effect. You do not have the authority to override the governor’s executive order.”
Violating the governor’s stay-home rule, or any executive order issued through her emergency powers, could lead to criminal or civil penalties, Rosenblum said.
“So, in addition to putting your residents’ health at risk, you may be placing them in legal jeopardy,” she said. “My hope is that this letter will persuade you to abandon this approach. Please be advised I will take legal action, civil or criminal, as appropriate, in order to protect the public.”
Reached on Saturday, Mayor Holladay admitted he has been talking with other mayors in the region, as well as business owners and residents in both Canby and Oregon City, about the possibility of allowing businesses to reopen and people to go back to work — with or without the approval of the state government — but said he had made no formal decision on the matter.
“We had been discussing some options, but we had not chosen a particular course,” Holladay says. “Then I get this really shocking letter, telling me what I was planning on doing even though I hadn’t told anybody what I was planning on doing, and that I should cease and desist.”
A longtime civil servant who has worked with county and state leaders on a variety of local and regional projects, Holladay said he was surprised to receive such a letter without the courtesy of a phone call to discuss his position in a more civil manner.
“I’m not a far-right bomb thrower,” he said. “I work with people all across the aisle, and I would have expected a phone call or an email saying, ‘Hey, could we have a chat about what you’re thinking about,’ rather than looking up into the sky and seeing the nuclear warhead falling. I guess I’m lucky they didn’t bust in my door to arrest me with a SWAT team. As far as I know, all I did was exercise my First Amendment right to have a discussion.”
Just for the record, Holladay said, he does believe the governor may have overstepped her authority, by continuing the state of emergency and social distancing orders now that it’s clear that the threat of the novel coronavirus to the state of Oregon is not as great as it initially seemed. At least, that’s the way he sees it.
“I think we need to get back to data and facts,” he said. “If you go back four or five weeks, I do not fault any of the actions the governor took shutting stuff down, because the information that they had then was that this could really be deadly. And even though it has been deadly, it hasn’t been nearly as deadly as the early predictions.
“So, the question is, ‘How long do we keep killing small and medium-sized businesses around the state to stop something that, at least in my opinion and in many of the things I’ve read from many different sources, is just not as dangerous as we thought?'”
The issue, Mayor Holladay said, based on his lengthy research and discussions with local attorneys and other experts, is whether the circumstances still warrant the governor’s continued use of her emergency powers. And, he admits, he might be willing to press the issue.
“I haven’t decided what I’m going to do. I’ve got folks looking at things this weekend, then I’ll make a decision,” he said. “I’ve been doing this all my life; I’m not afraid of a fight. I prefer not to, but, you know, I don’t want to see moms getting arrested in the park. I don’t think we have the right, constitutionally, to tell people they can’t go to church. I think that’s a dangerous slope to go down.”
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