Petersburg’s borough assembly Monday voted to postpone for two months a final vote on an updated borough ordinance on responding to emergencies. Assembly members hope to have additional input and answer questions that have come up in the first two readings of the proposed law. Meanwhile, they also expect to meet again possibly this week to pass a temporary ordinance that authorizes the same things.
The proposed ordinance is a revision and expansion of local law outlining responsibilities during an emergency, and authority to implement curfews, evacuations, prohibitions on public gatherings and closing of businesses during a declared civil emergency. The assembly in March and May approved temporary 60-day versions of this expanded law that have since expired.
Bethesda Fellowship pastor Lloyd Thynes read from a letter from several ministers in the community, questioning how long prohibitions on public meetings could last under this proposed ordinance.
“Our church services are not a gathering that is lightly canceled for any reason but especially by the government,” Thynes said. “Note the First Amendment, ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ The framers saw the value of religious faith in society and this is our genuine and continued experience. Our right to assembly must be protected except in the case of extreme and dire circumstances.”
Many writing or speaking to the assembly though the proposed law put too much power into the hands of the borough manager, incident commander or borough assembly. Others have questioned the authority of the local government to take such measures. Still others supported the borough’s response and urged the assembly to pass it.
Assembly member Jeigh Stanton Gregor said the proposal was not that different from what’s already in local law.
“Some of the concerns people voiced today I empathize with but they’re not based in a reality that something is being snuck past or that civil liberties are being infringed upon,” Stanton Gregor said. “I take that part of this role very seriously to make sure that we’re not infringing on anyone’s civil rights in our community and having compared the old city code to this, it’s there for the reading. It gives us no more power and I don’t think waiting until September is going to change that.”
The revision passed unanimously in first reading last month and by a 4-2 vote last week in second reading after a public hearing and substantial opposition to it.
This week assembly member Brandi Marohl proposed a two month wait for final approval after members of the public, the mayor and other assembly members suggested tabling the third reading.
“I think there just needs to be some more questions answered and things need to be a little more cut and dry before we proceed,” Marohl said. “There’s a lot of dissention and people are just up in arms about this and so I think that we need to think about it before we pass it and push this through. There’s a lot of emotions right now. I don’t see the urge to rush this.”
The vote was 4-3 to postpone with Stanton Gregor, Chelsea Tremblay and Jeff Meucci voting no. That included an amendment to plan a public forum on Zoom or other online platform for answering questions and responding to citizen concerns. An attempt to move the date of the third reading up a month failed. Instead it will be planned for September 21st and the date is not yet set on that online forum. In the meantime the old city law on emergencies remains in place. That designates the city manager as the incident commander and authorizes that person to implement an emergency preparedness plan. And the assembly discussed having a special meeting in the near future for voting on another extension of the temporary emergency law.
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected for date of temporary emergency law votes.