By Jimmy Orr, Cowboy State Daily
Two members of the Teton County Commission on Tuesday signaled concern when hearing about a new webpage that enables residents to report on mask violations in Jackson and surrounding areas.
The sheriff of Teton County, however, said there is no enforcement behind it and it was built to alleviate the high numbers of phone calls for and against the mark mandate that come into county dispatch.
At Tuesday’s county commission meeting, Commissioners Greg Epstein and Mark Barron both expressed apprehension that a page was built without their knowledge on the county’s COVID website that allows citizens to file a report against individuals or businesses who are not abiding by the Teton County mask mandate.
“I have a lot of problems with this. I think it’s a complete overreach of our government,” Epstein said at the meeting.
“Secondly, I don’t even know who authorized it. It wasn’t in the [mask] order,” he said. “I think that we need to have a cease and desist on it immediately. There’s already a lot of mistrust in our community and in the country, and I think this is only exacerbating that.”
Commissioner Barron was quick to agree noting that the new webpage was a surprise to him as well.
“I too am very troubled by this,” Barron said. “We’ve got a community that’s worked really hard trying to stamp out COVID. And I don’t see this as a positive step forward. And I am curious where this came from and how this came to be I did not see this in the order.”
Keith Gingery, Chief Deputy Attorney for Teton County, explained the webform was newly created because the last time there was a mask mandate individuals wanting to report violations would call the Teton County Sheriff’s department.
“People were calling dispatch and they were tying up the line,” Gingery said. “The idea was, and I don’t know all the details, was so people weren’t calling dispatch for this.”
Later in the meeting, Sheriff Carr concurred that the webform was set-up with his knowledge through Public Health to alleviate phone calls that dispatch was receiving.
“Dispatch just doesn’t need to get every phone call from somebody reporting that so and so is not wearing a mask in Albertsons,” Carr said. “That just overwhelms our dispatch center in a real big hurry.”
Epstein was not satisfied with the explanation.
“I still feel like this is creating an environment of mistrust within our community, more divnisioning, more factioning,” he said. “We’re pitting people against law enforcement unnecessarily and I’m worried.”
Carr said he was “having a hard time following [Epstein’s] logic” but acknowledged that masks are a “very polarizing issue.”
“So I just don’t want to cut off the public’s ability if they feel it necessary to report,” he said. “I just don’t want those phone calls clogging up our dispatch center.”
On Wednesday, Carr told Cowboy State Daily that the site was just a “management tool” with no enforcement behind it.
“We’re not trying to create anything for neighbors to report neighbors,” he said. “We’re not going to enforce it. What we’ve done in the past is if Public Health tells us there are 25 complaints at a location, we might go there and talk to the owners. But we’re not going to enforce it.”
“We’re not encouraging people to use it. But there are people in our community — like any community — who want to vent whether it be for the masks or against the masks,” he said. “This is a tool for them to vent.”
Commissioner Barron, on Wednesday, told Cowboy State Daily he was satisfied with Carr’s explanation.
“I know there is no law enforcement with this and I’m fine with that,” Barron said. “If people feel like they have an ear when they email in, if public health has time to do this, then I’m fine with that.
“But the expectation that a police officer or a deputy sheriff is going to show up, people have to let that go. It’s not going to happen,” he said.
The commission agreed to table the issue until they could have conversations with the public health department.
Calls to the Teton County public health department have yet to be returned.