Petersburg’s borough assembly Monday approved a revision and expansion of local law on responding to emergencies, but not before removing some of the most controversial language in the draft ordinance. And some on the assembly are interested in taking another look at the local health mandates that are still in place.
The ordinance spells out responsibilities for the borough manager, incident commander and assembly during an emergency. As proposed it outlined orders that can be enacted during a disaster including curfews, business closures and prohibitions on gatherings. It’s a permanent version of a temporary local law that’s been in place since March. Opposition to both has been strong this year.
“The rights of the people are not granted to them by government which in turn means the government has no authority to absolve, suspend or tamper with these rights in any fashion,” resident Bosjun Reid told the assembly. “The borough has the ability and duty to serve its citizens by forming a strong emergency response team. We can easily do this by issuing recommendations based on the best available information at the time.”
“While we all understand that we need this for emergencies, let’s not pretend that the additional four pages of verbiage that has been absent has anything to do with tsunamis or earthquakes. This is all about COVID,” said another resident Amanda Ohmer. “When you read through this, this doesn’t say anything to me except for we do not trust you , the people of Petersburg, we do not trust you to make the decisions in regards to keeping ourselves, our families and our city safe.”
Residents have been circulating a position statement asking the assembly to vote down the proposed revision. They say they gathered over 485 signatures.
Other local residents supported passage of this revision, asking for clear language on the chain of command and how restrictions to life and business can be enacted and removed.
The assembly vote from Monday is a little complicated. Assembly member Bob Lynn moved to amend the local law to require assembly approval for ordering a curfew, closing businesses and limiting gatherings. That passed unanimously. Lynn next moved to entirely remove the sections on curfews and limiting gatherings, two of the three sections just changed. That too passed by a 7-0 vote. His third amendment requires an assembly review of the law in 24 months.
“It comes back to a couple people who had commented on the need for checks and balances earlier,” Lynn said. “And I was thinking by that time hopefully we’re past the current situation we’re dealing with and somewhat back to normal hopefully. And at that time if there’s parts of it that aren’t working, parts of it we had wrong, parts of it that really the public come forward and said no we need another change, that gives us a chance to do that and actually put it on the agenda to do it.”
Like the other changes that passed unanimously.
That leaves language on closing businesses if the assembly approves or calling in outside law enforcement help. The law also still has allowances for ordering evacuations and catchall language allowing for “orders reasonably necessary to address the civil emergency and for the protection of life and property.”
The existing ordinance predates the formation of the borough. It’s shorter, less specific about restrictions in the community and authorizes the manager to implement an emergency preparedness plan. However, that plan has not been updated since 2001 and does not include any specific response to a pandemic. The borough is in the process of drafting a community plan specifically for a public health emergency.
Jeigh Stanton Gregor thought the updated with more specific language is needed.
“To put it simplistically the old city code was really loosey-goosey,” Stanton Gregor said. “You know as a home rule borough we have broad powers and I, from a civil liberties perspective, like this refines our roles. We can’t override state, we can’t override federal government. Not that we could to begin with. But it really clarifies what we can and cannot do as opposed to leaving a broad spectrum out there. And from a civil liberties perspective I like that more. It gives greater protections. I know some folks have spoken tonight who don’t see it that way and I respect their view.”
Petersburg last reported a positive COVID case more than a month ago and is on the verge of returning to all in-person schooling this month .
Mayor Mark Jensen had heard enough opposition to the proposed ordinance.
“In Petersburg anyway I don’t think we have an emergency right now, “ Jensen said. “ I could see where the public is having some heartburn with this ordinance being put in, with the situation Petersburg is currently in. We have no hospitalizations. We don’t have any active cases. We have like 46 tests that we don’t have results back for I should say.”
The vote was 5-2 to pass the amended law, with Brandi Thynes and Jensen voting no.
Assembly member Lynn wants to revisit any remaining health mandates and look at removing those. Assembly member Taylor Norheim agreed and thought people were over reacting to national news and the Lower 48.
“Things are weird and crazy down there right not but they’re not here,” Norheim said. “Other than the COVID restrictions and I’m with Bob on that. They need to start going away, because you tell me there’s an emergency. OK, well I don’t see it. And I understand that it’s a virus, you’re not going to see it and it will get here and you won’t know. But when it does, you lock things back down a little bit. It was 15 days to slow the curve. I don’t know what day we’re on now but…. The short is, don’t apply what’s going on down south up here because it’s not the same not even remotely. Just calm down a little bit.”
Local health mandates that remain in place address in-person public participation at meetings, pre-approval for docking by cruise ships and other passenger vessels and review of mitigation plans for out-of-state workers coming to town.