As the government has continuously ramped up social distancing restrictions in order to combat the Chinese coronavirus, much attention has been placed on elected officials at the federal and state level.
But what about local officials? Specifically, the ones who have appeared to relish the opportunity to clamp down on the activities of the citizens they represent? And do they really have the power they have exercised in recent weeks?
To answer these questions, Texas Scorecard spoke with JoAnn Fleming. Known by grassroots activists across the state as the executive director of Grassroots America – We The People, a conservative organization based in Tyler, Texas, Fleming also has experience with local government, having served previously as a county commissioner in Smith County.
Fleming pointed out that local governments have been relying on sections of the Health and Safety Code, which gives officials broad power in order to prevent and control the spread of communicable diseases, such as COVID-19. Under these statutes, local governments are granted the ability to issue quarantines, regulate hospitals, ingress and egress, and issue fines for noncompliance.
“There are statutes on the books that have the power of law,” Fleming said, adding, “We have laws on the books that are unconstitutional.”
Indeed, Fleming noted, this was not the first instance that these discrepancies had been discovered. As an example, she pointed to a section in the Texas Constitution that prevents perpetuities and monopolies. She argues many of the state’s current toll roads, however, violate this provision.
“It would be a good exercise if people who believe the government has overreached looked at existing statutes and say we need to either amend or repeal some of these,” she added. “We need to review the laws that are on the books, and we should have a plan to change those laws.”
In addition to looking at the statutes, however, Fleming advises citizens to evaluate their own local officials on some basic criteria.
“Have they been heavy-handed, like tinhorn tyrants? Or did they come to the community and ask for your help, as they have in Smith County? Do they appear to be auditioning for the next political office they want to run for?”
“What we have seen is we have some elected officials who talk to citizens as if they’re children and have no common sense,” Fleming said, citing Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins and Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley as examples.
“Whitley seems to be enjoying it quite a bit,” she added.
And while the circumstances surrounding government orders in recent weeks have certainly been unique, Fleming argues that the best solution hasn’t changed.
“People have the remedy of holding elected officials at the ballot box. I hope everyone has been taking note on the methods they have used,” she said. “How far did your elected officials push these elastic statutes? A good measuring stick is liberty.”
Additionally, Fleming also says elected officials at all levels need to be having discussions on how to get the economy back on track.
‘It’s now time for local and state officials to have a conversation about getting back to business,” Fleming said.
“Real people are suffering, and so all these elected officials who have issued these disaster proclamations and orders need to be running a second track right now to talk about how they get their people and communities back to work.”
Of course, with liberty comes personal responsibility, and Fleming says citizens should continue to exercise common sense in order to stop the spread of the virus.
For example, “If you’re a family of 12, common sense would dictate you don’t take the whole family to the store.”
The current statewide disaster declaration from Gov. Greg Abbott is set to expire on April 30.