Although two political candidates, an attorney and two business owners begged the county commissioners at their Wednesday meeting to drop the county's participation in a federal lawsuit against Gov. Tom Wolf and state Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine, the suit will move forward.
Commissioners Leslie Osche, board chairwoman, and Kim Geyer, both Republicans, voted to ratify the county's participation in the suit challenging the state's emergency orders during the coronavirus pandemic which they said violate the U.S. Constitution.
Commissioner Kevin Boozel, a Democrat, voted against the ratification.
In addition to Butler County, the lawsuit's participants are Fayette, Washington and Greene counties, several Republican elected officials who signed onto the suit as citizens, business owners and individuals.
Osche said she feels the commissioners' hands were tied in making decisions for their constituents when Wolf made the disaster declaration in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic in early April.
“We have really been denied in so many ways our role and what we swore to when we took office,” Osche said.
She said businesses were confused on what to do initially and when Wolf announced May 8 that Butler County would move to yellow status this Friday in the COVID-19 recovery plan, because the rules from Harrisburg on what they were allowed to do kept changing.
“There is no real guidance,” Osche said.
Geyer said she voted in favor of the suit to uphold the state and U.S. Constitutions and the oath of office she took when elected.
She said her constituents' rights are being trampled by Wolf's orders to shut down businesses and schools, and for residents to stay at home.
Regarding the fact that Wolf announced last week that the county would move to yellow, Geyer said the lawsuit is still important.
“This lawsuit is about defending the civil rights that were violated,” Geyer said.
She said her goal is for the lawsuit to result in a process for pandemics in the future that will safeguard the health of citizens while allowing them to work, go to school and open their businesses in a way that works for each county.
“That's what this lawsuit is about,” Geyer said.
She said citizens are facing economic ruin and may never recover from the restrictions put in place during the pandemic.
“There is not a whole lot we can do, but we can stand up and make a point through civil action and saying this was wrong, how this was communicated,” Geyer said.
She said a conversation between the commissioners, Wolf and Levine on Tuesday revealed that Wolf and Levine believe infectious disease issues will be ongoing in the state and that they plan to set the standards for preventing the spread of any future viruses.
Geyer argued if the fight for local control is not taken up now, then it will be too late.
“We're going to surrender our civil rights and freedoms and liberties,” Geyer said.
She countered those at the meeting who said the suit is a waste of taxpayer dollars, especially now that restrictions have been eased.
“The return on investment of having our freedoms and going on about our daily lives in the manner that we choose will be worth it,” Geyer said.
Geyer further pointed out that a large sector of county residents and business owners support standing up for their constitutional rights.
“It's not easy for anybody, but it's the right thing to do,” Geyer said.
Boozel lamented the county has no idea how much the lawsuit will cost.
He added the governor and even President Donald Trump did not have the benefit of time and data when making decisions they felt would save lives.
“If we're going to start suing our elected officials, we better start suing them all,” Boozel said.
He said all 50 states, almost half the municipalities in Butler County, and Trump declared disasters, but Wolf is being sued for it.
Boozel pointed out that only four of the 11 counties in the state's southwest region joined the lawsuit, and said he had to call Tom King, the attorney hired by the county to represent the parties in the lawsuit, to find out what was filed May 7.
Boozel said while he understands that people feel their rights have been violated, it could be argued that people being sent to war against their will also violates their constitutional rights.
“I hope to God that everyone looks at this for years to come and finds a better way to do it than what we're doing today,” Boozel said.
Cindy Hildebrand, owner of several oil wells, hundreds of acres of farmland in the county and Cindy's Place restaurant in Chicora, said she lost $20,000 to $30,000 in closing her restaurant during the pandemic.
But she said the next generation will have to pay for the lawsuit, the point of which she does not understand.
“I really want to know what this lawsuit is going to do for the county,” Hildebrand said.
She said if taxes are raised to pay for the suit, blue collar workers will have to work overtime to pay their bills and senior citizens will struggle even harder to pay their taxes.
Hildebrand added that restaurants and retail stores would ultimately see a decrease in business if there was a tax increase.
“I'm never going to recoup the money I've lost, and you are making it 10 times harder,” Hildebrand told the commissioners.
Geyer and Osche said while they could not estimate the cost of the lawsuit, the county budget includes a line item of $40,000 to $50,000 for unanticipated legal fees.
Geyer said the three other counties in the lawsuit have indicated they would chip in for legal expenses, which will cost $175 per hour.
Robert Steighner, who owns businesses in Clearfield and Summit townships, agreed with Hildebrand. “Eventually, we are all going to have to pay for this,” he said.
He said lawsuits can be drawn out and become stuck in the court system.
“If you can prove it will do something to help us, then I'm sure the business owners will be behind it,” Steighner said.
Daniel Smith, a Center Township Democrat who is running for state representative in the 8th Legislative District, said he lost five friends to COVID-19. He asked the commissioners not to turn their backs on those facing the virus.
He said the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the actions taken by Wolf and Levine, who he said have done the best job they can.
“I humbly ask you to do the right thing and vote 'no,'” Smith said. “If we work together, we'll survive together.”
Phil Heasley, an Adams Township Democrat who is running for state representative in the 12th Legislative District, owns Butler Gymnastics Club and Butler Dance Center in Butler Township.
He said he will not reopen his business until he is satisfied his 25 employees and 300 families will be safe.
Heasley also disagrees with the lawsuit against Wolf and Levine.
“I'm shocked to see the county wasting so much precious time and resources during this pandemic that they could spend helping when we need to open,” Heasley said. “This is not the time to sue the government.”
He said no Democratic candidates were asked for their input on the lawsuit.
Heasley accused the commissioners of using tax dollars and resources for a frivolous campaign move.
“That, to me, is just so disrespectful to everyone fighting on the front lines trying keep us safe,” he said.
Catherine Lalonde, chairwoman of the county Democratic Committee, also said the lawsuit is needless now that the county will be moved to yellow status this week and will have some restrictions eased.
She said the businesses involved in the lawsuit were shut down because they necessitate close contact.
The owners of three hair salons, two drive-in movie theaters, a furniture store and a farm are among the plaintiffs in the suit.
Attorney Jennifer Gilliland Vanasdale said she is representing four Republicans in the county who are against the lawsuit. “This is a political puppet show,” she said, calling the suit illegal.
She accused the commissioners of breaking the law through conflict of interest, theft of services, misappropriation of government resources, conspiracy and other violations.
Vanasdale said she referred her case to the district attorney and state attorney general's office on Monday, asking both offices to open investigations into the matter. She and attorney Steve Townsend are representing Paul Critchlow, Diane Ventura, Fontaine Graham and Gary Vanasdale.
Asked to give a status update on the lawsuit, King said a summons will be served on Wolf and Levine once their legal council has been determined.
He said he is in the process of preparing a request for a speedy hearing on the declaration by Judge William Stickman of the Western District of U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh, who has been assigned to hear the case. King said he plans to file various actions required in the case over the next week.