Council extends emergency ordinance
The Nome Common Council in a May 15 special meeting voted to extend a local emergency authorization ordinance in response to the global pandemic caused by a novel coronavirus. The authority is given to City Manager Glenn Steckman but the ordinance clarifies that the Council is the ultimate authority and that actions by Steckman need to be ratified by the six councilmembers. Nome has a city manager form of government with the Common Council setting direction and policy, but a public outcry over perceived “overreach” by the city manager in response to the COVID-19 pandemic led the Council to specify in the May 15 emergency ordinance that it’s still the Council directing the City Manager to take necessary actions to reduce the impact and spread of COVID-19, that at any time the Council in a meeting can override the city manager’s actions, but that the city manager has the ability to act swiftly to react to cope with the emergency.
To pass the emergency ordinance, an affirmative vote of three-fourths was necessary, and the ordinance was adopted unanimously.
• The city manager reports to the council on actions taken under the emergency authority and the council “may by motion ratify, or vacate any or all actions, or provide direction to the City Manager for rescinding or amendment.”
• Glenn Steckman clarified that the perceived overreach of a city mandate that limited the hours of alcohol and marijuana sales originated with the stores as they voluntarily reduced their hours. This mandate is now lifted and the stores are now back to their regular business hours.
• The emergency order that regulated the frequency of entering grocery stores to twice a day was also lifted.
• An emergency order requiring a travel permit and agreeing to quarantine for 14 days was replaced by an emergency order that extended the use of a travel form and certain quarantine requirements. The council debated the order in a separate special meeting on May 19.
• The ordinance also clarifies succession in case the city manager can no longer fulfill his duties. Next in line would be Nome Joint Utilities Manager and then the City Clerk.
• Enforcement language was added, as some Nome citizens bristled at the idea that city staff check that those who are supposed to quarantine actually do so. Violations of any orders made by the city manager are considered a minor offense per Nome Code of Ordinances (1.20.010 and 1.20.020) and are subject to a penalty of $500 per offense.The ordinance is effective until July 14 unless rescinded by the Nome Common Council.
Before the council called the question, there was extensive public comment, read via texts, emails as well as taken by phone or in-person. Kenny Hughes urged the Council to not pass the emergency ordinance and to drop all municipal emergency orders as he felt there is no data to suggest that there is a local medical emergency. Instead, he suggested, to declare an economic disaster and “retool the city manager’s emergency powers” to promote economic growth.
Teacher Aaron Blankenship called in and reminded the Council to enforce the three-minute time limit of public comment per person, 30 minute in total, to avoid meetings to extend late into the night, as happened last Monday when the council adjourned well past midnight, due to back and forth discussions between some community members and the Council. “You were given a mandate by the sovereign will of the people, and any individuals who choose to shout over and subvert the proceedings of these meetings are not protecting our liberties, but squashing them,” Blankenship said. “It is not only in your interest, but your duty to rule that those who are not abiding by your policies are out of order. It is incredibly important that we allow the voices of the minority to be heard and shared. It is important that freedom of speech not be abridged. It is also important that these meetings function effectively.”
Much time was spent debating the pros and cons of keeping travel restrictions in place. Gay Sheffield called in saying that the Nome as the transportational and medical hub is the gateway to communities in the Bering Strait region and that the City has the responsibility to protect the region from the spread of COVID-19. Kirsten Timbers’ sent an email comment to the council, lauding them to be “willing to be unpopular for a few in order to protect all of us.”
Others argued that state mandates in place already prescribe quarantine measures and to do away with further restrictions. More vocal opponents of the travel permit found the measure unreasonable and akin to turning Nome into a police state.
In a notable exchange, Judy Martinson, opposed to the travel permit, asked the council members if they swear on the bible to uphold the Constitution. Councilman Doug Johnson reminded her of the rules, that the Council listens to the public during the public comment period and does not engage in dialogue. Yet others had very specific reasons such as travel of children caught in custody battles between parents.
The Council decided to vote to approve the extension of the emergency ordinance and take up the travel permit issue in a special meeting that took place May 19.