Petersburg’s borough assembly Wednesday approved the second reading of a permanent ordinance on responsibilities and powers during an emergency. There’s been strong opposition to the revised local law, with some calling it an overreach of the local government’s authority.
The ordinance is a revision of old city code for responding to an emergency although the rewrite includes specific language about powers of an incident commander and authority of the borough to call for evacuation, set a curfew or ordinance the close of businesses.
The assembly received a number of letters seeking more checks and balances on the borough manager or incident commander.
“Allowing one non-elected individual to possess all control over this borough is unsatisfactory,” said resident Angela Davis. “Where are the checks and balances? Allowing the borough manager or the incident command officer to enact curfews and have the ability to close down non-essential and essential businesses and probably mandate masks due to erroneous “wildfire spread” at the drop of a hat is irresponsible. Any assembly member who voted for this should be recalled. This is not why we voted for each and everyone of you.”
Another resident Melinda Olsen read from a letter she said was supported by more than two dozen others. That letter sought a limit on the authority of the borough manager or incident commander along with requiring more public notice of the need for an emergency proclamation.
Basically I just want to say we cannot imagine that this is even acceptable,” Olsen said. “So we just want more transparency. We don’t want you guys to have this overreach of power. It’s not necessary. We’ve been doing fine as a community. Again like somebody else read a few minutes ago. We’d love it if you could trust us to do the right thing and not be necessary to step in.”
Several residents asked for a committee of community members who would be able to provide input on emergency measures.
The proposed law gives the borough manager the authority to declare an emergency, which can be ended or changed by the assembly. The manager, an appointed incident commander and the assembly have the power to impose a curfew, close businesses, prohibit gatherings or call in additional law enforcement. The ordinance also allows for meetings called on short notice along with spending decisions without competitive bidding.
The borough incident commander for the COVID-19 pandemic Karl Hagerman told the assembly the revised ordinance is needed for this and future emergencies.
“In my opinion it’s very much required for the manager to have the authority to take actions and to deal with that emergency as efficiently and as quickly as possible,” Hagerman said. “And the provisions in the ordinance, the powers that are granted can be changed by the assembly of course but the need for the ordinance in the first place I think is valid and however the final version of the ordinance appears I think it’s important for the community to have a system like this in place so that we can respond in the case of an emergency.”
Hagerman explained the old city code would remain in place if this revision did not pass the assembly. That law is more general but also gives the manager the authority to implement a local preparedness plan.
Assembly member Bob Lynn proposed an amendment to clarify that the assembly can override the appointment of an incident commander. That amendment passed unanimously.
The assembly was split on the amended law as proposed.
Chelsea Tremblay cited last week’s canceled meetings. She noted the assembly can be slow to act but can also override decisions by the manager or incident commander.
“We are the civilian oversight,” Tremblay said. “And so building in the check with assembly member Lynn’s amendment was very reasonable and is important that we have this continuing dialogue especially in something pretty unprecedented like what we’re in right now. But there’s a reason that we are not in charge of what is a tiered chain of command system that’s been used for decades in the country to respond quickly in a hyper local, hyper responsive model to something that’s ongoing and needs a quick coordination.”
But others wanted to stick with the general language of the old city code.
“With all the added language I think it’s a complete overreach,” said Brandi Marohl. “I don’t think that any one person should have that much control but I also think it’s pretty unfair to ask one person to have that much control over decisions being made for the community, our neighbors, our friends our family. I don’t think any one person would even want to have the ultimate say in closing somebody’s business. That’s just my opinion and I think it’s a complete overreach. And I think that we’ve heard from plenty of community members that agree that this has just gone too far.”
The vote was 4-2 to approve the ordinance with mayor Mark Jensen and Marohl voting no.
That ordinance requires one more reading before the assembly planned for July 20th.
The assembly also had a brief discussion on requests for the borough to reinstate a face covering mandate.
Petersburg Medical Center officials wrote to the borough asking to consider instituting health precautions like a mask mandate with the rise in COVID-19 cases.
“I know the recommendations seen in there are not a very popular one but it is from a medical standpoint alarming when we’re looking trends, not just in the state, but outside the state,” said medical center CEO Phil Hofstetter.
Local residents wrote in and spoke to the assembly both for and against that requirement, which is in place in other Alaska communities, along with Alaska Airlines and the state ferries. Assembly member Bob Lynn said he didn’t support that requirement.
“I think there’s been really good people masking and I look at some of the stores that have chosen to mask, I will abide by all that,” Lynn said. “I’ve chose some places to wear it, some places I chose not too. If I was agree to what’s in the letter I would continue to pull the community apart and I don’t want to do that. I wanted to begin to come together. We’ve got to turn it around and make it so that we’re all comfortable with what we’re doing.”
In response to assembly comments the borough’s incident commander Hagerman said he may pursue a health alert that would recommend, but not require, certain health precautions as cases increase.