Most of the council members said this week they don’t want officers put in a position of enforcing the governor’s order
BATTLE GROUND — With Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy’’ order officially extended through the end of the month, local municipalities are struggling with how to deal with a growing number of businesses and individuals considering open defiance.
A Facebook group called Reopen Washington State has attracted well over 30,000 followers in less than a month, with many calling for businesses to reopen as early as today.
That level of unrest has put local governments in the position of having to decide when and how aggressively to enforce the stay-at-home order.
Or whether to enforce the rules at all.
Few places in Clark County represent that push and pull better than Battle Ground, whose 21,000 residents are well known for their antipathy towards government intrusion, real or perceived.
It was Battle Ground where Joey Gibson and Patriot Prayer found their strongest foothold last year in their attempts to get local governments to stand against I-1639, a 2019 voter-approved law which enacted new rules on gun ownership in the state.
And it is in Battle Ground where City Council members have heard rumblings of a handful of businesses who are at least considering reopening in defiance of the governor’s order, which has been extended through May 31.
“I was on a live stream earlier and it looks like there’s a group of people that are actively looking to have people purposely reopen their businesses here in this area,” said Councilor Shauna Walters during a virtual council meeting on Monday. “It’s kind of a rallying cry for them right now. So, I would not be surprised.”
“This is a predicament that none of us want to be in,” said Battle Ground Police Chief Mike Fort when asked how his department plans to respond to any complaints about people breaking the rule. “We know that many businesses are complying with this. So then we have the quandary of some that do and some that don’t.”
In a post to the city’s Facebook page, Fort appealed to individuals and business owners to hold on “a little longer,” despite the frustration.
“Do you really want to be the one that causes these restrictions to last longer than necessary?” Fort wrote, while acknowledging that many people are suffering economically from the extended shutdown.
“The next step is going to be for us officers to personally educate the businesses and/or groups that are gathering together and document that,” Fort added on Monday. “And if we need to continue investigating, if we need to forward charges, well, those are all things that are certainly possibilities.”
The chief’s stance met with some pushback from members of the city council, who worried that local police shouldn’t be put in the position of enforcing a rule passed down from Olympia.
“My opinion is that we are spending time running around doing an unfunded mandate again, right?” said Shane Bowman. “Our officers are being put in a situation where they don’t want to enforce it. They don’t want to be the bad guy going in saying, ‘hey, you need to close down.’”
Councilor Philip Johnson was even more blunt in his assessment of the situation.
“If you’re getting snitches, chief, I don’t have much use for snitches and especially in this kind of atmosphere,” he said. “‘Thanks for calling, good day,’ would be my answer to those people.”
“Do we enforce any other existing state laws in the city?” asked Councilor Mike Dalesandro.
“Yeah, regularly,” Chief Fort responded. “A fair amount of them are state laws.”
“What I’m getting at is, when we get into the job of picking and choosing what we enforce in the city, is also dangerous precedent,” Dalesandro responded. “I don’t think we should be necessarily expending resources out there and sending the police department out just looking for people doing things because, you know, that’s a different issue. But if someone comes to us with a complaint about somebody breaking the law, I think we should enforce the law.”
Ultimately, the decision whether or not to enforce a state law is an executive-level one, meaning city council members can’t provide guidance, only feedback.
“All seven of us are going to hear about it from various people, about businesses being open and all that,” said Dalesandro. “I’m not by any means advocating we go out there and knock on doors … I just don’t want us ignoring it.”
“At the end of the day, I don’t want to see a Battle Ground police officer being the face of enforcement when it comes to having to go beyond just education,” summed up Mayor Adrian Cortes. “I think the state has a significant amount of tools that will motivate compliance if they so choose.”