MINOT, N.D. — After Gov. Doug Burgum's administration rescinded a quarantine order yesterday, one which had misdemeanor criminal charges attached to it for violators, interim State Health Officer Dr. Paul Mariani has announced his resignation.
He'd been on the job for less than a month, and he's now the third person to step down from the position since the pandemic began.
It will be tempting for some, particularly Burgum's political enemies, to suggest the governor is doing something wrong.
From outward appearances, I'm not at all certain that's true. I think our real problem is in finding someone for the SHO role who understands that they are not the governor.
Thursday I was the first to report that the controversial quarantine order was to be rescinded. Between that moment and Dr. Mariani's resignation this evening I interviewed Burgum. Toward the end of our conversation, he sad something that, in retrospect, is pretty fascinating.
I was closing out the interview, and Burgum interjected to praise our public health officials. "One thing I want to say in support of our local public health teams, they're working so hard," Burgum said. "They care deeply about people's health. That's their job. Their job isn't to look holistically about the economy and education, their job is on health."
That bit about what the job of public health officials is, and is not, reveals a great deal about Burgum's mindset.
It's his job, as our state's top elected official, to "holistically" (to use his term) consider all aspects of public policy, from health to the economy to education. Public health officials have a narrower remit which makes them responsible for just one of those facets.
That attitude — and it's the correct one for a governor to have — is at the heart of Burgum's apparent conflict with his state health officials.
It is fashionable in certain political circles — among those who think the job of an elected leader is simply to get elected — to talk about how we should just do, as public policy, what technical experts tell us to do.
Folks, that's not leadership.
Someone like Dr. Mariani, without question, has expertise when it comes to questions of health. Yet the quarantine order he issued touched on policy areas far outside the expertise of a doctor.
How would that order be enforced? That's a law enforcement issue.
Disobeying the order would have been a crime, albeit a misdemeanor. But if you arrest someone for a crime, they are afforded certain rights, including access to public defenders and all the due process our statutes and constitution and reams and reams of jurisprudence afford.
There is clearly a very vocal and active faction of North Dakotans who saw that order as unjust. If they resisted it, was the state prepared for the resulting court cases? And perhaps civil suits?
That may not be the sort of thing a technical expert, like a doctor, considers.
Yet those ramifications are exactly what a governor must consider.
Burgum wants people to wear masks. He wants them to distance themselves while in public. He also wants them to quarantine for the appropriate amount of time after coming in close contact with someone who tested positive.
But because he's a governor, and not a technical expert with all of the policy-area myopia inherent to that sort of position, he understands the political, legal and even economic ramifications for trying to force those things, by law, in a place like North Dakota.
"We know the government telling people what to do in North Dakota doesn't work," Burgum said during our interview.
For those of you who think he's wrong, you have an alternative in Democratic-NPL challenger Shelley Lenz who has made it clear that she'll appoint someone else to make these tough policy decisions for her.
To comment on this article, visit www.sayanythingblog.com
Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.