Emergency Powers

Municipal Emergency Powers During COVID-19

The situation relating to the COVID-19 outbreak is rapidly evolving. Governor Evers has issued a State of Emergency due to this public health emergency. League members are facing difficult questions about what powers municipalities and their governing bodies have to respond to the situation. 

The Wisconsin Statutes address emergency management and local emergency plans, however, these provisions do not provide comprehensive guidance for adhering to social distancing advisories resulting from a global pandemic such as COVID-19. The League attorneys have received several questions, particularly questions regarding how municipalities can conduct essential business, comply with Wisconsin’s Open Meetings Law, and simultaneously practice social distancing, as many public health agencies are advising. Governmental bodies are concerned about holding meetings where large members of the public may be in attendance. Moreover, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, at the Governor’s direction, has now issued an order prohibiting gatherings of 10 or more people throughout the state. There is also a concern about vulnerable governmental body members being required to convene physically to conduct essential business, particularly business required to address the current public health emergency. Some governmental bodies may have the capabilities to convene electronically and live broadcast their meetings, but there are numerous governmental bodies that will not have such capabilities. 

Local governments also have the power to declare emergencies. Wisconsin Stat. § 323.11 provides that the governing body of any local unit of government may declare, by ordinance or resolution, an emergency existing within the local unit of government whenever conditions arise by reason of, among other things, a disaster or an imminent threat of a disaster, that impairs, among other things, health or police protection, or other critical systems of the local unit of government. The period of the emergency shall be limited by the ordinance or resolution to the time during which the emergency conditions exist or are likely to exist. Section 323.02(6) defines “disaster” as a severe or prolonged, natural or human-caused, occurrence that threatens or negatively impacts, among other things, health. The article (found here) summarizes local governments’ emergency powers and may provide helpful information for municipalities.  March 16, 2020