This is still a Democracy, right?

Bob Magee
Bob Magee, mayor pro tem of Lake Elsinore, sits in his car with his face fully covered after buying groceries. Valley News/Courtesy photo

Bob Magee

Special to Valley News

I’m not a doctor and I’m not a scientist, but I am a public servant and a student of public policy and political science. As an elected official, I am responsible to my constituency. If they call, I answer; if they write, I respond and if they knock on my door – because I don’t live behind a wall or a gate – I open it. But during this current public health crisis, I have been stripped of my ability to respond, remove or replace public health driven restrictions placed upon the lives of the people I serve. And while Congress and our state Legislature both adjourned, your local governments: the Riverside County board of supervisors, city councils, etc. continued to do business, hold socially distant meetings and respond to taxpayers, except when it comes to public health orders.

Why have our hands been tied as a nonelected public health official has held sway over our freedoms during this pandemic seemingly with unbridled power and authority? Here in this new-normal, we can go to a drive-in movie, but not a church service. My dog can get her hair cut and her nails done, but not my wife, and toilet paper is like gold. I never thought I would see an America where elected officials faced their constituents through masks and over television or computer screens, but not in person face-to-face. My brother used to joke by calling me “Mayor McCheese,” but lately I feel more like the “Hamburglar” behind my mask. Although after years of trying, my wife said I finally look like Steve McQueen.

I applaud the efforts of our public health professionals. The first projections of serious illness and death from COVID-19 were frightening, and while the crisis continues and many are sick and dying, many more have been saved through the actions of our front-line professionals who took action as unpopular as it may have been.

But why, were your local boots on the ground elected officials shut out? Enter Assembly Bill 262, which was passed by our state Legislature just last year, which stated “…the local health officer may issue orders to other governmental entities within the local health officer’s jurisdiction to take any action the local health officer deems necessary to control the spread of the communicable disease.”

It is crystal clear, the state in this instance has given the authority to a nonelected official.

In times of crisis or emergency, like wildfires, floods or earthquakes our emergency responders set up a command center and an incident commander is named. That commander is in charge for the duration of the emergency. But these incidents are relatively short-lived. Here in Lake Elsinore, we have lived through fires, floods, fish kills and the poppy apocalypse where each event triggered an emergency-level response including road closures, evacuations, school closures and business interruptions. But this public health emergency situation is different both in terms of the duration and in the restrictions of personal freedoms without the ability for the taxpayer to have their voices heard by their elected officials.

While the intent of this piece of legislation is to protect public safety, the public has a right to protect their freedoms and to have their issues fully vetted in an open forum by people who they can hold accountable for their actions. This legislation needs to be revised after this crisis has passed. Any edicts by the public health officials need to be supported by science and aired in a public forum where taxpayers can speak to the impacts and their elected officials get to make the final decision once all the facts are in. Such an action – in my opinion – should take place within 10 days of any public health order and require a 4/5 or supermajority vote in order to enforce or overturn such an order.

Then, the taxpayers are truly served, and if they disagree with their elected leaders, they can vote them out. The pressure and frustration grow when there is no relief valve and the pot is left on the stove to boil. The many Americans who are quarantined at home, unemployed or who have been forced to shutter their “nonessential” business have been left without hope or recourse like an unattended pot on a hot stove.

This is not the America I grew up in. I took an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the state of California. The oath also states that I will “faithfully discharge the duties” of my office. AB 262 strips me of that power and/or responsibility. It must be changed once this crisis has passed and our lawmakers reconvene.

Rather than place blame or point fingers, let’s look at this time as an opportunity to continue to grow and improve our form of democracy which is after all still the best in the world.