After Oak Park Public Health Director Theresa Chapple-McGruder led an exhaustive five-day vaccine clinic for thousands of children across numerous district schools, many parents were stunned to learn that village trustees initially let Chapple-McGruder’s emergency regulatory power expire Nov. 15 without plans to extend her authority. Now, they and other residents are showing support for Chapple-McGruder, demanding village board members renew her regulatory power as the pandemic continues.
During the Nov. 15 village board meeting, several Oak Parkers advocated for Chapple-McGruder as a medical leader and for her work since joining the public health department in April. They cited her efforts to enact safety guidelines, educate the community on COVID-19 and partner with local entities, including last week’s vaccine clinic launch for 5- to 11-year-olds at Oak Park Elementary School District 97 and Oak Park and River Forest High School.
“Her timely and innovative efforts continue to keep Oak Park residents safe,” said resident Eunice Hawkins, an Oak Park mother. Hawkins said she was worried and discouraged to hear that the health director’s emergency powers were “allowed to expire,” especially as winter draws near and could spark a new surge.
“I strongly urge the board to extend Dr. Chapple’s emergency powers immediately,” she said.
Village President Vicki Scaman told Wednesday Journal Chapple-McGruder would continue to have authority to regulate businesses and schools in regard to Covid even without emergency authority.
Hawkins’ concern, though, matched those of hundreds of parents who signed a petition over the past few days, asking board members to review the order that granted Chapple-McGruder the power to make reasonable rules, regulations and orders in response to the Covid pandemic. The village board previously extended that authority twice, its last vote taking place in June with a sunset expiration date of Nov. 15. Typically, the health director would need the approval of both the village board and the board of health to move forward with any changes, rules or regulations.
The petition, which went live late last week via Change.org, was created by some local parents who call themselves Concerned Citizens of Oak Park and has amassed 388 signatures as of Nov. 16.
“It just seems like someone who has done such a good job of keeping our community [Covid] transmission [rate] where it is and keeping our kids safe for the most part in school, that [it] would be extended,” Laura Sakiyama, an Oak Park mother who helped start the petition, told Wednesday Journal over Zoom ahead of the Nov. 15 meeting.
But there are some residents hoping the village board keeps its stance and allows the order to expire. Kate Odom is one of them.
“My stance is we should not extend this emergency order. We are not in a state of emergency,” said Odom, who is also an Oak Park parent. “Our health department is putting out policies that do not match our community’s needs.”
Odom said she believed that Chapple-McGruder’s quarantine policies at the elementary school level are too restrictive and younger students need more testing options to return to school just like the high school students. She also said the health department needs to prioritize children and teen’s mental health, a crucial issue exacerbated by the pandemic that she has seen gone unaddressed.
Sakiyama and Oak Park parent Julia Howland told the Journal she was “honestly frightened” and disappointed to learn that Chapple-McGruder’s regulatory power would come to an end in mid-November without any public discussion at the board table.
“This is the worst time to be letting up on a lot of our mitigation measures,” said Howland, who like Chapple-McGruder, is an epidemiologist for a maternal and child health program. “This is a time where we really need skilled, strong leadership to lead through this vaccination campaign, get children vaccinated and as well as protected as possible in an as equitable way as possible. That’s the work that Dr. Chapple is able to do, and if her emergency powers are allowed to expire, her ability to respond efficiently and effectively will be significantly reduced.”
A much bigger problem
But that’s not entirely the case, said Scaman.
Ahead of the Nov. 15 meeting, Scaman told Wednesday Journal that Chapple-McGruder would still maintain similar authority over the Village of Oak Park, including schools and businesses, even when the order expired. The order granting the health director regulatory power was adopted early into the pandemic when “immediate action” was required for various facets of life in the village, Scaman said.
“We’re just not in that place anymore,” said Scaman. “Still, even if Dr. Chapple decided that she needed to close a business or direct D97 to additional [Covid] mitigations, she still has that full authority to do that, in the same way that she, as a public health director, can close a restaurant for inspections or challenges their inspections.”
“If something were to change, if we were going to see restaurants be closed again [because of COVID-19] and people were told to stay home, then we would most certainly reinstate that,” said Scaman. “It’s not meant to be in effect for the entire time.”
During the Nov. 15 meeting, interim Village Manager Lisa Shelley told the board that she met with Chapple-McGruder and Village Attorney Paul Stephanides a couple weeks ago to discuss the order in question and whether it should be placed on the Nov. 15 meeting agenda.
“We went through it as a group. When I found out that we didn’t need to renew it, and that the authority would remain in its place, that’s why it didn’t appear,” Shelley said. “We didn’t put it on because nothing would have changed.”
Scaman told the Journal in the week leading up to the Nov. 15 meeting, she spoke to village staff and four trustees who also agreed to let the order expire. Scaman said she never anticipated that the order would draw any controversy, but once she learned there was some opposition, there was no time to revise the agenda.
“I did my round just to make sure that there was at least a majority of the board that didn’t want to extend the order,” Scaman said.
Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla, however, was one of the elected officials Scaman did not reach out to and expressed her frustrations at the Nov. 15 board meeting, starting her comments off with, “I wonder what happened here.”
Walker-Peddakotla made a motion Monday evening to put the issue of extending Chapple-McGruder’s emergency power on the next village board agenda which will be Nov. 22. That motion was approved. The trustee said some “boat shopping happened because individual trustees were called and asked about their opinion on this issue – and I was not one of those trustees. Those were all private conversations that happened outside of a public forum and outside of the public domain.”
Walker-Peddakotla said the decision to not bring the matter to the board table and hold a public discussion or vote is a “dangerous” precedent, and if that same method of collecting a majority vote occurred with other issues, the village would not have been able to engage in discussions, especially those centering on racial equity.
“That’s the precedent that is being set here, and it’s a dangerous one because it means that a majority of the board can work in the interest of a potentially minority of community voices. That, we should not want that in the best interest of our democracy.”
Scaman responded to Walker-Peddakotla, “I hear you. I do.”
“I should have called her,” Scaman told the Journal in a separate interview.