COVID-19 and local control: Is the Force really with Gov. Kim Reynolds?

July 27, 2020 8:00 am

Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague announces a public facemask order. (Screen shot from City of Iowa City video)

Iowa’s state leaders might benefit from a brief lesson from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Princess Leia, the cinnamon-bun-haired prisoner in the original “Star Wars” movie, warns the galactic empire’s Grand Moff Tarkin about the pitfalls of authoritarianism:

“The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.”

Now, we’re not comparing the State Capitol to the Death Star or Gov. Kim Reynolds to anyone who likes to annihilate planets to drive home a point. But local leaders around the state, chafing under state edicts, have begun a campaign of resistance.

Mayors, county auditors and school superintendents are openly daring Reynolds and other state officials to send out the stormtroopers. Or their lawyers, who are way scarier.

Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague and Muscatine Mayor Diana Broderson have imposed face mask mandates in their communities, despite Reynolds’ claim that such local displays of rebellion are futile. As of Friday, however, there had been no state demands that Iowa City stand down. Muscatine’s order remained in effect but its status was in doubt amid disagreement among city officials about whether it could be enforced.

Frank Feilmeyer, a former president of the Iowa Municipal Attorneys Association, questioned in a guest column last week the legal rationale the governor used to claim local mask mandates were invalid. “The only scenario where a local rule requiring mandatory PPE (personal protective equipment) would be irreconcilable with a state rule is when there is an actual state rule prohibiting PPE,” he wrote.

Reynolds issued a new emergency proclamation Friday, extending most of the COVID-19 mitigation rules and regulatory relief measures that were already in effect. She did not add a rule prohibiting local mask orders.

Some school officials around the state have also considered ignoring Reynolds’ order that students be taught in person at least 50% of the time this fall. The Des Moines Public Schools superintendent, Tom Ahart, said last week the district didn’t intend to change its plan that limits the number of days students are in the classroom, the Des Moines Register reported.

The Iowa City school district also plans to stick with its “return to learn” plan, which doesn’t include students returning at all in the first two weeks of classes, KWWL TV reported. Those are just a few examples.

Then there are the county auditors, who are thumbing their noses at Secretary of State Paul Pate’s order that only “blank” absentee ballot request forms can be mailed out to voters.  Linn County Auditor Joel Miller sent out more than 90,000 ballots last week pre-printed with voter personal identification numbers (PIN).

He said he notified the secretary of state’s office of his plans and gave them plenty of time to do something about it.  “Radio silence,” Miller, a Democrat, said in an interview.  He questioned whether Republicans on the Legislative Council, who warned county auditors against defying the secretary of state’s order, were “just posturing.”

Good question.  The Republican-controlled Legislature has been at war against local control for years, often at the behest of well-funded special interests that would rather not fight battles in every city and county. Among other actions, this year the Legislature shut down local zoning to control where gun ranges are located, and forced local governments to spend big bucks for added security if they want to keep guns out of their libraries and city halls.

The COVID-19 controls are politically touchy in more ways than one, however. Reynolds can play to her base by speaking against local mitigation efforts like mask mandates but she stands to benefit if the orders are effective at slowing the infection.

Republican lawmakers who raised a fuss during the legislative session about mass mailings of absentee ballot request forms were quick to approve Pate’s request ꟷ right after an AARP poll showed overwhelming support by voters age 50-plus. It likely hasn’t escaped their notice that widespread, convenient voting by mail benefits both parties. The business about mailing only “blank” forms may have been nothing more than a political fig leaf.

The school situation is thornier. Business interests want kids back in school no matter what so parents are free to come to work and keep the economy ticking. But Reynolds’ move to undercut local plans already in place has left districts scrambling in a way that could backfire. It remains to be seen how free state officials will be will local requests for waivers.

At the moment, it appears that while Reynolds and state officials want to tell local officials what to do, they’re not inclined to crack the whip. The Force is with local officials for now, at least until residents decide it’s their turn to rebel.

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