Kane County leaders squabble over COVID-19 response
With 25 deaths related to the COVID-19 pandemic, there's been simmering tension in Kane County government over the local response.
County Board Chairman Chris Lauzen inked an emergency declaration March 17, but hours later constituents and employees sent emails urging leaders to do more.
"During a pandemic, we need our county government employees to remain especially strong so we are able to continue to serve the community," read part of a letter by Anna Czerniak, a mental health program manager in the county's public health department. "By not allowing nonessential county employees to work from home, you are putting individuals, their families, and our community at unnecessary risk of getting sick and spreading COVID-19."
Czerniak did not respond to interview requests, but her sentiment was echoed in other emails from several Elgin Community College employees.
"The county should order a countywide lockdown and send nonessential county employees to work from home as ECC has done," read a letter from Luis Martinez, a biology professor.
Jarett Sanchez was among the county board members to respond. In an email to ECC employees, he said Lauzen was stonewalling an emergency declaration and opposed nonessential county employees working from home.
Two weeks later, Lauzen responded in a nine-page letter to the ECC community. He pointed out the emergency order he signed and efforts to outfit nearly a third of the county employees with work-from-home technology.
But the bulk of his letter blasted Sanchez with salacious details taken from child-custody hearings involving Sanchez. Lauzen offered them as examples to suggest that Sanchez should not be criticizing anyone's leadership. Then, he called for leaders to act with a shared voice that avoids panic.
"The small-business owners, the last thing they want to see is a bunch of politicians emoting at microphones," Lauzen said the day after the original letters appeared. "Children are being scared. We have a different type of leadership, where it's a quieter form. It is a continuation of 'Keep calm and carry on.' The carry on portion means we actually do carry on. If we shut ourselves down, there's a void. We want to avoid the void."
Lauzen called on county officials to avoid any criticism, particularly of officials who may control relief money the county could access. But, he has not always taken his own advice.
"I cannot criticize other (levels of) government," Lauzen said at the public health committee meeting. "If I criticize the state, it won't be the governor who turns around and punishes us. It will be the staff members. I know the quality, or the lack of quality, of the people who make decisions about the resources that come here. They are little people. Terrible. Terrible. You won't find me at any time criticizing the state."
The tension goes beyond the county board and its constituents. Last week, Coroner Rob Russell spoke publicly about preparing to see 300 to 1,000 deaths from the virus. Lauzen had already urged Russell in private to keep those numbers to himself.
On Tuesday, Lauzen called out Russell for defying him.
"We need to beware of overreliance on models," Lauzen said. "Sometimes they go off the spectrum, into the area of causing fear. All of us need to be generally right rather than precisely wrong."
In an interview later, Russell said he believes the public will take comfort in knowing his office prepared for all scenarios.
"Scaring, in this case, is caring," Russell said.
Lauzen said he wants to keep the conversation focused on preparations. He announced a task force Tuesday assigned to maximize the county's share of relief funds.