In a 4-3 vote, Oak Park village trustees reinstated Public Health Director Theresa Chapple-McGruder’s emergency regulatory powers, allowing her to continue to make “reasonable” rules and regulations while the pandemic continues. The decision came after a lengthy discussion during the Nov. 22 meeting as some trustees called for clarity on the language of an expired order that had previously granted and extended Chapple-McGruder’s powers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Interim Village Manager Lisa Shelley and Village Attorney Paul Stephanides led the discussion Monday night and combed through the details of the order that had allowed Chapple-McGruder and her predecessor, Michael Charley, to enforce various COVID safety measures across Oak Park. The board first adopted the order early in the pandemic and extended it twice, its last vote taking place in June, but with a Nov. 15 expiration date.
Though the village’s order has since ended, Shelley and Stephanides told trustees Chapple-McGruder still holds the same authority over any decisions regarding COVID-19. Like many other local public health directors, Chapple-McGruder’s regulatory power remains intact under Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s COVID-19 executive order, which continues to “declare an emergency” in Illinois, Stephanides explained. The governor’s order is reissued on a monthly basis as the pandemic persists and is up for renewal on Dec. 11.
“I just want to make it clear that nothing was removed from the authority of the public health director,” Shelley reiterated.
But Chapple-McGruder and several other board members, including Lucia Robinson, Ravi Parakkat and Arti Walker-Peddakotla disagreed and questioned whether the village’s order clearly reflected the public health director’s emergency power, especially to the community.
“I’ve heard three different interpretations of what the ‘authority’ means,” said Chapple-McGruder, who joined the Oak Park Department of Public Health in late April. “The clearest interpretation that I have is that with the emergency proclamation, with the emergency authority written into the code, then I’m able to make clear decisions in a timely fashion.”
Without the village order, Chapple-McGruder said she is unclear about the guidelines or rules she can impose to help keep Oak Parkers safe from the novel coronavirus.
“What happens in my daily job is that I’m questioned every day about what authority I have in order to make a certain decision,” she told the board while putting in a request to restore the order. “In order for me to clearly respond to that, I need to be confident in my response, and as of this week, I am not as confident as I was.”
While Robinson called the village ordinance “hollow legislation,” she voted against the measure and said reinstating the ordinance as is and without any amendment “doesn’t provide any clarity and doesn’t give a concise level of support for our public health department.”
“The confusion around this provision has been really unfortunate. Even hearing from Dr. Chapple and the emails we’ve received over the last week [from residents], what’s clear to me is that there’s just a lot of confusion,” Robinson said. “I think it’s now leading to growing frustration, and there’s just a real information gap.
“Given the confusion that comes as a result of this,” she continued, “I just don’t think, at the end of the day, that it’s helpful.”
Parakkat, who also cast a dissenting vote, said the debate on whether Chapple-McGruder’s emergency powers should be re-established also highlights whether Oak Park is in a state of emergency. He, like Robinson, believed bringing the order back does not resolve the larger issues at hand.
“Because of the lack of clarity, the community has wasted so much time,” he said. “We, as a board, have wasted so much time discussing it to unpack this misunderstanding. Let’s just provide the clarity and move on from here.”
But Walker-Peddakotla said voting to reinstate the order would help alleviate the ambiguity.
“I don’t think emergency powers should be extended in perpetuity,” said Walker-Peddakotla, who was among four trustees who voted “Yes.” “Let’s extend the order until we get past the winter months, until we get past COVID peak season, and then we can figure out what the heck we want to do — to really clarify the public health director’s powers long term. Because here’s the thing: COVID is a long-term thing, and we don’t know when it’s going to go from being pandemic to endemic.”
Village President Vicki Scaman, who cast the last “Yes” vote and broke the tie, sought to bring the order back to create a “sense of security” but urged Chapple-McGruder to continue her work, as she already has through the pandemic, and work with the schools, businesses, Shelley and Stephanides.
“It’s been a very difficult time for you, and I’m sorry,” Scaman said. “And it’s been a very difficult time for all staff who work here at village hall and for our families, but the last thing I want is for this meeting to end, and for there to still be that confusion.”