Petersburg’s borough assembly Friday was split over another extension of a temporary local law for responding to civil emergencies. The 60-day extension passed on a 4-3 vote and the assembly changed the wording to clarify they’d have final say over public health measures. However, opposition to the ordinance continues.
The assembly held a special meeting Friday afternoon after postponing a vote on a permanent version of the emergency law. It was a full assembly with four of them attending in person and three on the phone. Members of the public also called in and opposed any extension.
“Our hospitals in Alaska are not overwhelmed because of this virus,” said local resident Amanda Ohmer. “Our mortality rate has not climbed and while the cases do, hospitalizations and mortalities do not. And so I don’t feel that an extension of any temporary emergency ordinance to this extent is required at this time.”
Another caller was area resident Michael Truex. He urged the assembly to put the law to a public vote and wondered why it is needed here if case numbers remain low.
“Under what conditions would we have less of a local emergency than we do right now?” Truex asked. “I’m not talking about an emergency in California or New York, I’m talking about here on Mitkof Island. That’s the place where this emergency order is going to be issued. Under what grounds would this order be lifted?”
The emergency ordinance authorizes the borough manager, incident commander and assembly to respond to a civil emergency, outlining possible measures like curfews, business closures or prohibitions on public gatherings. A permanent revision and expansion of municipality’ code on emergency response has also generated substantial opposition this summer. The borough has not implemented most of the public restrictions outlined in its emergency laws during this pandemic. Local mandates have required face coverings and shut down some businesses during the spring. Others have required health clearance for cruise ships docking here, ended in person meetings and required borough review for out of state workforce plans.
The borough’s incident commander Karl Hagerman told the assembly the law is still needed.
“I think it’s important for the borough to have mechanisms in place to respond if it does get really bad,” Hagerman said. “Today if we based all of our decisions on where we’re at today there would be no need for this, I could go back to my normal job, we could shut down the EOC (Emergency Operations Center) and we could all be happy but I hope everyone on the assembly and the community can see that the pandemic is not over and the case counts in our state do reflect that. We just need to be prepared to take action if needed. And it’s all about protecting life and property.”
The temporary ordinance specifically mentions the COVID-19 pandemic and an emergency declaration the assembly passed in March. It allows meetings to be called on short notice and for the borough to skip public and competitive bidding for goods and services needed during an emergency. That comes into play as the borough spends federal coronavirus relief money before the end of the year as required.
The law also has language superceding any conflicting law. The assembly unanimously agreed to clarify that’s only meant to override any borough laws that might conflict, not state or federal laws. They also added language to clarify that assembly approval is required for curfews, closing businesses, restricting gatherings or calling up additional law enforcement.
Assembly member Jeigh Stanton Gregor did not think it was necessary but was willing to make the change.
“Director Hagerman brought that to us as another option to provide safeguards for members of the public that would be concerned about civil liberties etc.,” Stanton Gregor said. “So I have no problem with it since the director, our incident commander’s comfortable with it.”
Assembly member Chelsea Tremblay was the only vote against that change. She was concerned with a quick response being slowed by assembly consideration.
“Compromising our ability to respond quickly to a situation to me does a disservice to the idea of emergency response and of having the ability to respond in a timely manner,” Tremblay said. “So I just wanted to say that out loud because I think that’s important for us to consider once we get to the permanent one.”
Before this the assembly had twice passed the temporary ordinance and will consider the final reading of a permanent law with the same language on September 21st.
Another proposed change came from Taylor Norheim. He suggested removing the fines for people violating the law.
“If there is an emergency going on and things are a little dire looking, people will do that thing,” Norheim said. “You don’t need to force compliance. You will do this or you will go to jail or you will be fined with the last penny that you have now. It’s not helpful.”
That change was voted down with only Norheim voting for it. Those fines are for obstructing emergency response, not complying with orders or displaying emergency ID without approval.
The vote was 4-3 to pass the ordinance with Taylor Norheim, Brandi Marohl and mayor Mark Jensen voting no. It’s in place for 60 days and will last until the assembly considers the final reading of the permanent ordinance.