As Oak Park moves into phase three of Governor J.B. Pritzker’s Restore Illinois plan, Oak Park Public Health Director Mike Charley will effectively retain the same powers given to him within the declaration of the public health emergency after its June 1 expiration. The declaration of an emergency affecting public health was first adopted on March 13 then twice extended. The board of trustees decided to extend Charley’s powers during a special meeting held virtually May 28.

“We want him to be able to act swiftly and make those decisions as he has for the last 75-plus days so we ensure we’re doing everything we can related to the medical, public health aspects of this pandemic,” said Village Manager Cara Pavlicek.

The approved ordinance allows Charley the authority to establish “reasonable rules, regulations and orders” regarding COVID-19, despite the village not being under a declaration of a public health emergency. Charley will not have these powers indefinitely; under the ordinance, Charley’s extended authority expires Nov. 15 at 11:59 p.m.

The abilities under the ordinance do not extend to the entirety of the public health department, nor do they apply to anything unrelated to the COVID-19 pandemic’s presence in Oak Park. Village staff did not recommend to further extend the public health emergency declaration, but should the village experience a backslide regarding COVID-19, staff would likely recommend reinstatement of the declaration.

When asked by Trustee Jim Taglia the difference between the public health director’s authorities under a public health emergency declaration and those pursuant to the presented ordinance, Village Attorney Paul Stephanides said, “Really no different.”

Trustee Simone Boutet called the powers listed in the ordinance “overly broad” and that made her “uncomfortable” with the ordinance. She also did not support the line in the ordinance dictating any “rules, regulations and orders promulgated by the Public Health Director prior to June 1, 2020 due to the outbreak of COVID-19 disease which are not due to expire on or before June 1, 2020 shall remain in effect through their respective expiration dates or through Nov. 15, 2020 at 11:59 p.m. as applicable.”

“We don’t necessarily want the exact same rules to stay in place the whole entire time as we’re looking to open up and help the businesses and help the community,” Boutet said. “I’m comfortable with the powers that you’ve been using as is because you’ve already been doing a great job.”

The ordinance does not take any authority away from the board of trustees itself, which Pavlicek confirmed, saying, “The board at any given meeting could ask us to put this on the agenda and remove this paragraph from the code. The board is not losing any authority.”

Trustee Dan Moroney felt comfortable with extending Charley’s powers because the board had the ability to reverse or add to any order or regulation put in place by Charley.

Trustee Deno Andrews said he understood Boutet’s concerns and that he would probably feel differently about the language if Oak Park was not grappling with a global pandemic.

“I think if staff thinks they need this language to guarantee Mike Charley’s ability to make the right call, I support it,” Andrews said.

Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla wished to see the public health director work alongside the Oak Park board of health to ensure that the village was racially equitable in its response to the pandemic.

“We are sorely lacking in using a racial equity lens in our COVID response,” said Walker-Peddakotla.

“Where we all continue to struggle is, we’re straddling emergency management and trying to return to business as normal,” said Pavlicek. “And so, it’s a time crunch.”

 Walker-Peddakotla wished to see language added to the ordinance dictating that the board of health be used in an advisory capacity.

Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb said he was very much in support of the ordinance, saying, “Things are working in the village of Oak Park in terms of flattening the curve and not overwhelming our health department, health workers and health system.”

The ordinance, he said, is an extension of powers allowing Charley to continue enforcement of public orders given to grocery stores, nursing homes and other places that need more guidance from local government than state government.

“If we do not do that for Mike with the health department, we are not utilizing an asset that we have,” Abu-Taleb said.

 Abu-Taleb also said the nation as a whole could have handled the pandemic better if health departments and health experts were allowed active leverage in managing COVID-19, preventing it from becoming a political fight.

“Now, even wearing a mask is a statement about a political affiliation,” he said. “Let us get on with our business, let us allow the health department to go do the great work they have done, let us allow Mike Charley to continue doing an excellent job for us.”

The village board passed the ordinance with five affirmative votes; Boutet and Walker-Peddakotla both cast dissenting votes.

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