City leaders express interest in creating ordinance that would make disregarding health orders a municipal offense
photo by: Contributed Photo
In the wake of multiple large house parties over the weekend, Lawrence city leaders say they are interested in considering an ordinance that would make it a municipal offense to violate local health orders put in place to deter the spread of COVID-19.
After a debate during the Lawrence City Commission meeting Tuesday, a majority of the commissioners said they were interested in at least considering such an ordinance. The commission had received letters from the public saying that house parties had been occurring in neighborhoods near the University of Kansas campus on a regular basis, and some commissioners felt strongly that the city needed to do more to enforce the health orders and address irresponsible behavior.
City Manager Craig Owens said that the county’s Unified Command and the local health department had anticipated voluntary compliance in their approach to enforcing the health orders, and that the possibility that a complaint could lead to the district attorney filing charges would have been enough of a deterrent. He said up until last month that approach had worked fine, but a city ordinance would give police more enforcement power.
“(An ordinance) would allow our police department to consider these violations of health orders as a municipal offense, so we would be in the game, if you will, of trying to gain compliance on the scene,” Owens said.
City Attorney Toni Wheeler said the city’s legal staff believes that under home rule powers, the city could pass an ordinance that would make it unlawful to disregard county health orders. Wheeler said that the offense would be a misdemeanor that could be prosecuted in municipal court. She said the city has drafted an ordinance that makes such a violation a class C misdemeanor, which would be punishable by a fine not to exceed $500, incarceration not to exceed 30 days, or both.
However, Vice Mayor Brad Finkeldei and Mayor Jennifer Ananda said they were not sure that creating a municipal ordinance would be the best approach, and that perhaps stronger disciplinary action from KU, such as bans from campus, mandatory quarantines or suspensions, would be more effective. Finkeldei said he was not opposed to considering an ordinance, but that much like with underage drinking, he would expect some would disregard the law and that it would be difficult for police to enforce.
Ananda emphasized that preventing such events from occurring should be the commission’s focus, and she questioned how effective a potential misdemeanor issued after the fact would be at preventing future house parties. She also expressed concern about young people, whose brains are still developing, ending up with a criminal record because of such violations.
Commissioner Courtney Shipley said that she appreciated Ananda’s points, but that a better way to prevent mass gatherings of young people would have been to not have had in-person classes at the University of Kansas, which brought about 20,000 people to the city. She said relying on voluntary compliance was not realistic, and that there should be an immediate consequence for those who ignore health orders.
“Our community worked so hard to abide by the directives of the health department and (health officer Thomas) Marcellino,” Shipley said. “It is unaccountable for us to not have a plan to stop those gatherings, which were very predictable.”
Commissioner Stuart Boley said he thought the commission’s focus should be on protecting the vulnerable people in the community.
“How do we do that effectively?” Boley said. “We’ve been hearing comments from people who have been telling us they feel abandoned, and that’s what we need to address.”
Commissioner Lisa Larsen said the parties have jeopardized the safety of the community and she wanted to know what the city could do to provide better protection for residents. Ultimately, Shipley, Boley and Larsen said they would be interested in considering an ordinance.
Owens said that a draft ordinance could be brought to the commission at its next meeting on Oct. 6. He also said that the Unified Command has a meeting scheduled to talk about options for enforcing the health orders on Wednesday.