Champaign, Ill., isn’t known for very much besides being the location for the main campus of the University of Illinois. But the one thing they do big in Champaign is granting power to city officials in an emergency.
Champaign Mayor Deborah Frank Feinen decided to declare an emergency because of the coronavirus outbreak. Nothing wrong with that, really, even though there have been exactly zero infections in central Illinois.
What has people talking in the city are the emergency powers granted to the mayor during the crisis. The sweeping authority given to the mayor would have pleased Hitler, Mao, and Stalin.
City officials said the emergency is related to the COVID-19, which is anticipated to cause an impact on the health of community members. Champaign Municipal Code allows the mayor to declare an emergency for a limited time.
Included in the executive order are ordinances that would give the city extraordinary powers to the Mayor.
Violating parts of the Open Meetings Act
Ban sale of firearms and ammunition
Ban sale of any alcohol
Closing of all bars, taverns, liquor stores, etc
Ban sale or giving away of gasoline or other liquid flammable or combustible products in any container other than a gasoline tank permanently fixed to a motor vehicle
Direct the shutoff of power, water, gas, etc
Take possession of private property and obtain full title to same
Prohibit or restrict ingress and egress to and from the City
Naturally, Twitter just blew up.
City officials have spent the last 24 hours trying to dampen the firestorm that’s erupted. Apparently, some on the internet believe these actions have already been implemented and guns are being confiscated and businesses seized.
But don’t worry, Champaigners, the mayor has only been given the power to do that. She has no thought at all of actually following through, right?
In the statement, the city only lists 11 of the provisions they voted on. In the meeting Friday, WAND-TV was provided a full document, where Section 10 of the approved emergency order lists 30 provisional powers being provided to the mayor. WAND-TV asked the mayor about the provisions.
“So many of those powers, I have had from the beginning,” Mayor Deborah Feinen, said. “All we have done is enumerate them and now the public is aware of them. So, I am the liquor commissioner. I can shut down bars yesterday, I could have shut them down two years ago. Nothing has changed with respect to that, it is just that we have laid it out, so people are aware of that. In respect to the other items that are listed in the attachment, they have been listed in the city code for 15 years.”
So now that residents know, it’s perfectly okay. Except, it really isn’t okay. In fact, it’s dangerous.
There’s been some debate over the last few days and weeks about these “emergency powers” granted to government authorities. Cutting red tape and facilitating the movement of critical supplies is good and necessary and only extraordinary circumstances that grant our leaders the power to overcome bureaucratic inertia to get things done can justify these draconian measures.
But now that they have the power and are actually exercising it, how can we be sure they’ll give it back?
There’s no rulebook to follow, no guide to democracy that tells us what to do. The Constitution has been set aside — temporarily, we’re told. While the granting of emergency powers is legal and followed the Constitution, now we’re in uncharted territory.
What if this crisis lasts until the November election? What if some of the measures being implemented never go away?
How can a constitutional republic function without a constitution?
We needn’t really worry about any current leader grasping for permanent power. But some unscrupulous individual could one day create their own “emergency” as an excuse to take control. Then, the extra-constitutional powers we’ve handed over might be used against the people.
A flight of fancy, to be sure. Could never happen here, right? Why not? The blueprint is right in front of them. All that’s needed is a real or manufactured crisis — a fire that burns down the capitol building, for instance — and we’d be stuck with a “ruler for life.”
Emergency powers are necessary. But we don’t have to like it.