Shawnee opts against using county resources to enforce JoCo pandemic health order

Shawnee masks

After some back-and-forth among city leaders over enforcement issues, the Shawnee City Council on Monday night decided to opt out of Johnson County’s recent pandemic health order. The health order is still in effect in Shawnee, regardless of the city council’s decision. This means that Shawnee will handle enforcement instead of utilizing county resources. File photo.

The Shawnee Mission Post is making much of its local coverage of the coronavirus pandemic accessible to non-subscribers. (If you value having a news source covering the situation in our community, we hope you’ll consider subscribing here).

After some back-and-forth among city leaders, the Shawnee City Council on Monday night decided to opt out of Johnson County’s recent pandemic health order.

Despite the vote, the health order remains in effect in Shawnee, but the council’s decision means that the city will handle enforcement instead of utilizing county resources.

The order, originally issued on Nov. 16, is limited to businesses and organizations in violation of the county’s limits on things like gathering size and hours of operation and includes exemptions for private residences and religious organizations. Businesses found to be in violation could pay a fine of up to $500.

The four councilmembers who voted against the agreement Monday night said they wanted to keep the county out of the city, and would rather focus on educating businesses and organization instead of taking punitive measures, like issuing fines.

“I think that concerns me a great deal, especially coming on the heels of what has been just total devastation for our small businesses,” said Councilmember Eric Jenkins. “They have been just absolutely hammered. Many of them will never even be able to come back and reopen their businesses because of what’s happened to them. And here we go, let’s go ahead and fine them $500, let’s harass them some more. Let’s make it even more difficult to have a business climate in our community. I find that to be just horrible.”

Had the Shawnee City Council approved the agreement with the county — as other Johnson County cities have done in recent weeks, including Overland Park and Prairie Village — then the county would be in charge of enforcement, and violations would be deemed county code offenses instead of criminal offenses.

Because Shawnee declined to allow Johnson County the jurisdiction to enforce the health order, the practical implication of Monday’s vote appears to be that the city will now have to use its own resources, including the Shawnee Police Department, to handle enforcement without the aid of county officials.

“This is already in our city code that we will enforce whatever public health orders come in front of us, so essentially, anytime the county issues a public health order, it is an unfunded mandate,” said Councilmember Larson-Bunnell, who favored the agreement with the county.

“With these unfunded mandates, it’s actually really nice that the county is offering this assistance to do the enforcement because they are in a much better position to be able to enforce this consistently. I think it’s the right thing to do for our city, the right thing to do to protect our police resources,” she added.

Johnson County’s health order went into effect Nov. 16 and is currently set to end Jan. 31, 2021. The order applies only to businesses and organizations and is mostly concerned with hours of operation, gathering size and distancing.

Violations of the health order can be enforced through civil or criminal actions filed by the county district attorney, the state attorney general or the city prosecutor. The wearing of masks is part of Gov. Laura Kelly’s statewide order and is enforced separately through the district attorney’s office.

A motion to approve an agreement with the county ultimately failed with a 4-4 split vote.

Mayor Michelle Distler could have broken the tie and cast the deciding vote in favor of the agreement, but she did not.

Councilmembers Jill Chalfie, Lindsey Constance, Larson-Bunnell and Matt Zimmerman voted in favor of allowing county resources to enforce the health order. Councilmembers Jenkins, Mike Kemmling, Kurt Knappen and Tammy Thomas voted in dissent.

The video of the council meeting is below. Discussion begins at 48:47.