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Opinion: In a crisis, look to local leaders for common sense

Aaron B. Andrews
The Detroit News

In a time of crisis it can be hard to tell when emergency orders constitute government overreach. But when neighbors start informing on neighbors, reporting them for raking leaves in their own yards, that’s a sure sign we’ve strayed too far towards a police state.

That’s one of the calls that spurred Benzie County Sheriff Ted Schendel to reach out to his fellow sheriffs in Leelanau, Manistee and Mason counties earlier this month and draft a letter to their districts to inform residents they wouldn’t be strictly enforcing restrictions in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-home-stay-safe executive order extension.

“We’re not going to trespass on someone's property. And you can rake your own leaves,” Schendel says. “This is America.”

Ted Schendel is sheriff of Benzie County in northern Michigan.

Thank goodness local governments exist to interpret state policies for their own communities and exercise some common sense in applying the law. 

Leelanau Sheriff Mike Borkovich says his constituents were worried the cops could stop them on the roads for questioning at any time.

“That’s not American,” says Borkovich. “We're not going to go around ticketing people. What we’re trying to do is guide people into voluntary compliance."

The sheriffs’ letter to the governor called Whitmer’s order “vague” and an “overstepping” of her executive powers. Yet it was not intended to read like a defiance, says Borkovich, who posted a clarification on Facebook. It’s main purpose was simply to calm residents and reassure them common sense would prevail and constitutional rights would be respected.

Sheriff Schendel likewise notes that they’re not disregarding the orders, just using common sense in applying the law. For example, last week his office issued a warrant for the arrest of a pair of traveling vacuum salesmen who were going door to door in his community — a clear violation of social distancing measures.

But for others in his community whose work is banned by the order, it’s less clear how their jobs are a public health threat. Would Schendel ticket the owner of a fully automated car wash who doesn’t understand why he has to close shop? “I probably wouldn’t. I understand he’s got to put food on the table,” he says. “If we were all out of work, I think we’d be thinking a lot differently about this.”

While it would be tempting to see the conduct of these west Michigan sheriffs as a symptom of urban/rural divide, that diagnosis doesn’t hold up. It’s not just rural sheriffs who have had to use their better judgment. Earlier this month, officials in some Metro Detroit communities refused to enforce Whitmer’s prohibition of commercial lawn care services, citing health and safety concerns.

Warren Mayor Jim Fouts worried that tall grass in yards could lead to rodents, then blight, then crime. He asked Whitmer to reconsider her position on lawn care. Her office replied that the answer was no unless the service was necessary to maintain health, safety and sanitation. 

“From that answer, I interpreted that, yes, it is essential and I can make this exception,” Fouts says. “I admire the governor, and I respect what she's trying to do. But it’s my obligation to serve and protect the citizens of Warren."

The governor eventually loosened landscaping restrictions.

Local elected officials have a better idea of what their citizens need than state or federal politicians.

And that's a blessing, not a problem. Whitmer should have worked more closely with local leaders when she originally drafted her order, allowing local officials greater leeway to apply the orders as needed.

That might have won the orders broader acceptance.

Twitter: @Aaron_B_Andrews

Aaron B. Andrews is an editorial fellow at The Detroit News.