MEDFORD, Ore. — Jackson County officials on Friday sent a letter to Oregon lawmakers, urging them to limit the Governor's "unchecked authority" during a state of emergency like the one currently in place due to coronavirus. Each of the Jackson County commissioners signed the letter, which was reportedly emailed to Governor Brown and each member of the state legislature.
The commissioners acknowledged that coronavirus posed a public health emergency "the likes of which Oregon, the United States, and the entire world have not faced in a generation." Nonetheless, Jackson County's leaders said that Governor Brown's executive orders have accomplished what they initially set out to do — flattening the curve.
"Oregon has indeed 'flattened the curve' and is arguably in an enviable position as compared to other states with regard to novel coronavirus infections," the commissioners wrote. "However, these dramatic restrictions on the everyday lives of Oregonians continue and have resulted in soaring unemployment, business closures, and the inability to come together for gatherings as fundamental as church services."
While Oregon health officials did proclaim that the state had succeeded in flattening the progression of COVID-19 cases as counties neared reopening, the past several weeks have seen a rise in confirmed cases not seen since the pandemic began, prompting both the Oregon Health Authority and Governor Brown to pump the brakes on some counties reopening.
Oregon over the past week became one of the top three states in the nation for increasing coronavirus cases, the Washington Post reported on Saturday.
The Oregon Supreme Court last week affirmed Governor Brown's power to issue executive orders for the current public health crisis free of a statutory time limit under ORS Chapter 401, but the Jackson County Board of Commissioners argued that the long-term state of emergency indicated by Brown — likely until a vaccine or effective treatment can be deployed — is inappropriate under the statute.
"While this level of authority may be appropriate for a short-term state of emergency caused by a fire, earthquake, or other natural disaster, as applied to an emergency like the novel coronavirus, the Governor has essentially unchecked authority to issue orders for an unlimited amount of time which dramatically impact the lives of everyday Oregonians," the commissioners wrote.
The letter asks lawmakers, "hopefully with the support of the Governor," to amend ORS Chapter 401 in order to add limitations — like those in a separate statute specifically covering public health emergencies (ORS Chapter 433), which requires renewal by the legislature every 28 days.
"Whether or not an individual agrees or disagrees with the actions Governor Brown has taken during the current novel coronavirus emergency, no one can reasonably disagree, we hope, that the scope of unchecked and unreviewed authority Governor Brown is claiming regarding her authority under ORS Chapter 401 is antithetical to a democratic society with an elected Legislature who is the representative body of the people of Oregon," Jackson County's leaders wrote. "The people, through their elected representatives in the Legislature, should have an opportunity to review such dramatic actions taken by a Governor, regardless of which particular Governor takes them."
While the state of emergency under ORS Chapter 401 can be terminated by the Governor, it can also be terminated "at any time by joint resolution of the Legislative Assembly," according to a provision of the law itself. There has not yet been any indication that a significant portion of the legislature supports ending the state of emergency or will endeavor to see it ended at present.