Petersburg’s assembly Monday agreed on the date and format for a community forum on an emergency ordinance. There’s been significant opposition this summer to updating the local government’s law on emergency measures and responsibilities. A question and answer session with a moderator is planned for next month, before the assembly takes its final vote on the ordinance.

The assembly spent over 45 minutes on the format and scheduling for the community forum which will address questions about the emergency ordinance. They discussed whether to have an independent moderator to host the session, how to answer questions from the public, scheduling and whether the forum would be in-person.

Assembly member Jeigh Stanton Gregor thought it was a bad idea to have a large in-person meeting.

“I wish we were in a time right now when we were all sitting in assembly chambers and we had a gallery full of people there to speak and interact,” Stanton Gregor said. “It makes for a better meeting. But again it pretty much flies in the face really all medical advice we’re getting right now.”

Staff looked into the possibilities for taking in-person testimony at the municipal building. However, at the moment Petersburg’s public health mandate 3 has temporarily suspended in-person attendance by the public at meetings called by the borough government.  Assembly members eventually agreed that a teleconference meeting for public comment would be the best way.

They also were interested in paying an independent moderator and fielding questions submitted.

“I mean I think we can do this,” said assembly member Jeff Meucci. “I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. It’s just a matter of spending some time and making sure we get the questions that the community has answered. I mean I think no matter what happens there’s going to be a certain section of the community that is never going to be happy with whatever we’re deciding. At least it will give the community the chance to kind of send their questions in and they’ll know when they get received and they know that the assembly is honestly looking to answer some of their questions if they haven’t been answered before.”

The borough has received dozens of emails this summer both for and against the proposed law. Opponents do not think the local government should have the power to mandate health measures like curfews or prohibitions on public gathering. Supporters want the borough to be able to order those controls.

The assembly voted down a proposal to require the assembly to complete training for incident command before the forum. However they did vote to eliminate reports on the local pandemic response and agreed to remove that wording from the title of the community meeting.

Assembly member Chelsea Tremblay supported that change.

“If we want to have a second one on our specific Petersburg COVID plan, that’s in my mind a different conversation than where the emergency ordinance conversation needs to be,” Tremblay said. “And both will take a substantial amount of time. So in my mind that’s where I was coming from with not necessarily excluding it entirely but trying to stick to the true topic at hand which is the emergency ordinance.”

They settled on a date of Thursday, September 10 at 4 p.m. That session will include reports on the incident command system, local and state law and what’s happened to date with local and state health alerts and mandates. The assembly did not spend time this week discussing the substance of the proposed law.

The existing local law authorizes the city manager to implement an emergency plan. However it does not spell out in law specific measures such as curfews or business closures. The old city of Petersburg’s disaster response plan was last updated in 2001. It gives the city manager the authority to declare an emergency. The mayor and city council are given the role of interacting with the public and other elected officials. That plan also outlines a checklist of steps to take to respond to specific emergencies, everything from an enemy attack to a tsunami to a transportation accident. Not in that plan – a global health pandemic.

The proposed ordinance updates language to reflect the borough government created in 2013. It also grants authority to the borough manager or an incident commander to respond to an emergency. But it also adds assembly approval for that appointment. It specifies the manager, incident commander or assembly can order curfews, business closures, prohibitions on gatherings and calling for law enforcement help. There are fines for not complying with local orders, as there are with the existing code.

The assembly has approved the ordinance already in its first two readings. It was a 6-0 vote in first reading and 4-2 in second reading before the third reading was postponed until September 21st. They’ve also approved a similar 60-day temporary measure.