ST. CHARLES COUNTY — The County Council, meeting Friday in emergency session with the public barred from attending, passed legislation sought by County Executive Steve Ehlmann to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
The only bill drawing criticism would allow people who violate quarantine orders and other health directives to be prosecuted in municipal court instead of circuit court.
The bill passed, 4-2, after Councilman Joe Brazil, R-Defiance, convinced the council to amend it to require that it expire June 30. "If we need to revisit it, we could always extend the date," said Brazil.
Ehlmann emphasized that the bill won't create any new type of violation because state law already gives County Prosecutor Tim Lohmar authority to take such cases to circuit court.
"This is about where's the best place to deal with something like this," said Ehlmann.
His director of administration, Joann Leykam, said the county charges would be the equivalent of infractions and considered less serious than a state misdemeanor.
Officials also said people convicted of the county charge could be fined up to $1,000, half the maximum under the state charge. A judge could also issue up to a one-year jail sentence in either circumstance.
Ehlmann said while county residents asked to quarantine so far all have cooperated, officials need to be prepared to deal with problems that could arise if the number increases dramatically.
"We're just not going to be able to tolerate people being infected walking into a grocery store" and endangering others, Ehlmann said.
Brazil, who voted no, said in an interview that he objected to a provision defining a public health emergency order as one issued by Ehlmann or the county health director without council input.
He said he also worried that the main goal of the bill is to go after people who congregate. During the meeting, Amanda Jennings, an associate county counselor, insisted that's not the county's intention. She said the county's municipal judge is "not going to throw anyone in jail because he's in a group of 11 people."
An Ehlmann executive order issued Thursday limits social gatherings to 10 people to slow the outbreak, mirroring previous declarations in St. Louis and St. Louis County.
The other "no" vote was from Councilman Mike Elam, R-Dardenne Prairie. He said he fears that the message sent by the bill will put "people even more on edge than they currently are."
To limit potential spread of the COVID-19 virus, only council members and a few county staffers were allowed in the council chamber. The public, including news reporters, had to watch online.
Two council members also said they weren't allowed to attend — Brazil, who took part by phone, and Joe Cronin, R-St. Paul, who didn't. Both said they were caught up in a new protocol restricting entry to county buildings partly based on whether a visitor had recently been to Illinois where the virus is more widespread.
Other bills allow the county to contract to put a health department information call center in the St. Peters police-court building and to adjust employee leave policies to deal with the coronavirus situation.
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