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Merrill mayor asks police to enforce statewide mask mandate

Published: Aug. 5, 2020 at 1:33 PM CDT
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MERRILL, Wis. (WSAW) - Merrill Mayor Derek Woellner has requested the Merill Police Department to enforce the statewide mask mandate issued by Gov. Evers last week.

In a post on the City of Merrill’s Facebook page, the mayor states he has “requested the Police Department be prepared to enforce the Governor’s Emergency Order #1 or otherwise seek voluntary compliance with the order. We encourage all citizens and businesses to follow the mandate.” He goes on to say, “We ask, per the Governor’s Emergency Order #1 FAQ, that citizens not directly engage other citizens about their mask use or lack of mask use. There is a general presumption that people not wearing masks have a valid exception to wearing one. Reporting violations of the Emergency Order should originate with the person or person(s) in control of the premises where the possible violation is occurring.”

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Last week, Police Chief Corey Bennett stated in a post on the department’s Facebook page that the Merrill Police Department will not be actively seeking enforcement of violations related to the face mask order.

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NewsChannel 7 asked Wisconsin Professional Police Association Executive Director Jim Palmer, does the mayor have the authority to direct a police department to enforce the mask mandate? “The short answer is a qualified yes,” he said.

Under Wisconsin state law, the mayor is the chief executive officer of the municipality and it’s their job to make sure that local ordinances and state laws are observed and enforced,” he stated, “and also that the employees of a municipality are doing their jobs accordingly. While the police chief does have of having command of the police force, state law also provides that the chief has to follow all lawful orders of the mayor and the common council for that matter.

Whether the mask mandate is a lawful order, however, is, as Chief Bennett said in his post, “There currently exists debate about the lawfulness of the Emergency Order, efficacy of enforcement, and policy implications.”

“There are people, chiefs, sheriffs, a lot of people throughout the state that take issue with that and I think there are, perhaps, valid concerns regarding that particular mandate, but for all intents and purposes, I think under the law, it is a valid requirement until a court of competent jurisdiction says otherwise,” Palmer responded.

He added police have the legal discretion, for this order and any law, as to how to enforce it with the rules of the law.

“There are people, chiefs, sheriffs, a lot of people throughout the state that take issue with that (mask mandate) and I think there are, perhaps, valid concerns regarding that particular mandate, but for all intents and purposes, under the law, it is a valid requirement until a court of competent jurisdiction says otherwise,” he said.

While there is an option of issuing a $200 citation in the order, the governor’s office said in its media briefing announcing the order that it rather have people first voluntarily comply or have enforcement be education to voluntary compliance.

As Bennett and other law enforcement agencies that have posted their stances on the order noted, they will still help “individuals and businesses in maintaining peace and order when their policy decisions are not given the respect they are due.”

Bennett links to the Lincoln County Health Department’s COVID-19 information and encourages people to be informed. Though, as he noted and NewsChannel 7 mentioned in coverage the day the mandate was announced, the governor’s office stated that you have to take people at their word if they say they have an exception to the order. That makes enforcement tricky.

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