Petersburg officials last week presented their reasons for an update and expansion of local law on responding to emergencies. Area residents continue to push back on proposed language for limiting business, gatherings and daily life during a disaster. It’ll be up to the borough assembly next week to vote the ordinance up or down.
The proposed law details the responsibility for declaring an emergency and allows the local government to reassign staff where needed. It also spells out steps that the borough can order, things like curfews, limitations on gatherings and business closures.
Petersburg’s borough attorney Sara Heideman responded to questions from residents on the municipality’s authority to take those steps.
“The borough has authority to enact public health and emergency measures provided that those measures do not violate its own charter or would impermissibly conflict with federal or state law,” Heideman said.
Petersburg is what’s known as a home rule borough. Heideman said under the state constitution it can exercise all legislative powers not prohibited by its charter or in other laws.
The attorney also detailed a long court record in support of government response to a health emergency. The U.S. Supreme Court decided a Massachusetts case over 115 years ago allowing for some restrictions on constitutional rights to combat a public health emergency. The nation’s highest court this year also ruled against a church in California that sought to continue large gatherings despite that state’s shelter in place order.
Petersburg has been updating its local laws since the formation of the borough in 2013. With the COVID-19 pandemic this year, borough staff decided it was a good time to update old city code on emergencies. There’s also been a temporary emergency law approved by the assembly that allows for the same measures.
Since the advent of the pandemic in the U.S., Petersburg’s assembly approved a shelter in place mandate that also closed non-essential businesses. A similar state mandate soon replaced the local one. The local government also had a face covering mandate in place this spring. It has also changed rules for local meetings, required pre-approval for cruise ships and other passenger vessels and required submission of workforce plans for companies with out of state seasonal employees. Local officials have pointed out that this ordinance rewrite will help with response during future disasters as well as this one.
A different attorney, Sarah Fine was hired as moderator of this month’s forum and read from questions and answers compiled before the hearing.
“Adding language regarding issuance of orders provides guidance for both the assembly and for residents,” Fine read from the borough’s prepared answers. “The proposed changes to the chapter set out who can issue the orders, who can terminate the orders, the subject of the orders and they also provide safeguards when rights are going to be temporarily restricted.”
The proposed ordinance also would change the enforcement mechanism for violating orders during an emergency. That would allow the borough to ticket someone for a violation, instead of pursuing a criminal misdemeanor, the penalty currently in the existing code.
At the forum, officials described the incident command system, used to respond to disasters. Incident commander Karl Hagerman outlined the work of the local team that formed for the pandemic. He also defended the need for the revision.
“For every person who claims unthinkable overreach, there is another that is urging to reach farther in pursuit of public health and safety,” Hagerman said. “Hearing and managing the desires and opinions of all residents is part of a public sector job, but the responsibility to keep the population safe must be taken seriously and requires that response actions fall on the side of caution as much as possible.”
The borough continues to receive comments on the ordinance, many opposing the revision. Numerous local residents don’t want the local government to have this power and say the local law places too much power in the hands of just a few.
Dana Thynes wanted changes. “An emergency indicates that there is no time to follow ordinary procedures due to an acute immediate crisis,” Thynes said. “Well we already have the fire department, the EMTs, the police, the state troopers who all know their jobs well. But what about an emergency that goes on and on and on. Is that an emergency? Is that a temporary restriction of rights? In this scenario what if a group is running the show who will not listen to their constituents? There has to be a place in the law for public input and for public sector accountability. I’m not seeing those things in this emergency ordinance.”
Another person commenting Rob Schwartz also had problems with losing rights during a disaster that seems to have no end.
“You know you say that life isn’t going to change, it’s disrupted everything,” Schwartz said. “It’s disrupted our churches, it’s disrupted our work, our businesses. It’s disrupted our families. You know, this goes on and on and on. Who’s going to say, OK the pandemic’s over?”
Schwartz said he wouldn’t comply during an emergency if he had to act to provide for his family.
The assembly is expected to vote on the third and final reading of the ordinance September 21st.