Council moves forward with emergency ordinance extension
At the Nome Common Council meeting on Monday night, the Council voted to follow through with the first reading of an ordinance that would extend state of local emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic to June 30, 2021. The ordinance gives the City Manager emergency powers such as altering the conduct of City business and controlling “ingress to and egress from an affected area” to mitigate the spread of the virus.
The first emergency ordinance was adopted on March 27 and then versions of the same ordinance with different timeframes were adopted on May 15, July 13 and July 29. The current ordinance is set to expire on December 30, and the ordinance read at the Council meeting would extend the emergency another five months.
Among the issues discussed were the apparent addition of a clause allowing the sale of alcohol to be limited, which turned out to be a mistake from a previous draft, and a succession clause stating that the Nome Joint Utility Manager could take over for the City Manager if he became “unable to fulfill these duties.”
The Council discussed an accusatory Facebook post suggesting the succession clause was “sleight of hand.” City Manager Glenn Steckman explained that when the ordinance was written, the current mayor John Handeland was the Nome Joint Utility Manager, and it was understood that Handeland would act as Steckman’s backup in an emergency.
He added that the idea of an emergency succession stems from the city’s 1993 emergency protocol, and is less relevant today because he can perform his duties with his laptop and cellphone even when he’s not in the office. Councilmembers Jenifer Reader and Jerald Brown suggested the clause be marked for deletion in the second reading.
The Council also discussed the possibility of ending or “sunsetting” the emergency ordinance before July 30 if the public health situation improves. Steckman assured the Council that they could rescind the ordinance at any time as long as they followed the proper procedure of two public readings. He also noted that he takes orders directly from the Council, and they can tell him to do things differently at any time.
In the two public comment periods, a number of Nome citizens spoke about the resolution. Judy Martinson talked about her recent visit to Anchorage, where lockdowns have been less strict, and argued that Nome’s lockdowns were killing local businesses. “Consider the economic disaster that you are making of this town,” she asked the Council.
Rhonda Schneider said that mask wearing and travel restrictions were ineffective in her opinion, and that she didn’t support the extension of the emergency order.
Aaron Blankenship argued that the travel restrictions have been good for Nome because they’ve kept case numbers low enough for the schools to stay open, which hasn’t been the case elsewhere in the state. He said in-person school was especially critical in Nome where many students don’t have access to the technology required to study remotely and asked the Council to extend the emergency order.
The Council voted unanimously to pass the ordinance to the second reading phase.
The Council also voted to approve a resolution authorizing the City Manager to implement the fourth phase of CARES Act small business relief funding. The resolution doesn’t spell out all the details of the relief program in full, which is up to the City Manager, but specifies a few stipulations. Grants of up to $7,500 will be available to reimburse businesses for building modifications made because of COVID-19, and businesses will be able to submit receipts or quotes “for any expense for COVID relief not covered by other sources.”
The Council discussed how exactly to distribute the funds, with Councilmember Jerald Brown advocating for a system that distributed funds based on businesses’ specific needs, rather than blanket amounts for all applicants. The details of the program will be the topic of an upcoming work session.
The Council also passed a resolution approving a hiring bonus of $10,000 for new police officers that commit to the Nome Police Department for a minimum of two years. The bonus would be available to new hires who have already graduated from the police academy.
Steckman and Handeland spoke in favor of the resolution, arguing that it costs more than $26,000 to send someone through the police academy and that the $10,000 bonus was a more cost-effective way to attract experience to the department. Councilmember Reader argued that two years was not enough of a commitment to integrate new officers into the community, and that the City should be looking for ways to train local residents to be police officers instead. She proposed an amendment upping the necessary commitment to three years, but the amendment failed, and the resolution passed as originally written.
The Council also passed a resolution accepting a $46,176 grant from the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans’ Affairs for the Nome Police Department. The City had originally applied jointly with Kawerak for $309,000, Steckman said, mostly to pay for new police officers but also for some new equipment. Steckman said he was not sure why the state had only approved part of the request.
The new youth representative Zoe Okleasik was sworn in at the meeting. She thanked Councilmember Meghan Sigvanna Topkok for setting an inspiring example of Indigenous women in government and pledged to make the most of her time with the Council.
In the second public comment period, KNOM reporter Emily Hofstaedter expressed her concern that some Councilmembers and other attendees repeatedly refused to wear masks during Council meetings. She, along with Judy Martinson and other citizens, encouraged the Council to start having meetings using Zoom teleconferencing that could be attended remotely.
For those with a television and a cable connection, City Council meetings can be watched on GCI public access channel 12. Steckman said in the meeting that the City was working to develop a way to hold Council meetings over Zoom.
Editor’s Note: As city hall does not enforce its mask requirement rule and some council members and audience members don’t wear face coverings during council meetings, The Nome Nugget has decided to mitigate our employee’s potential exposure to the virus by covering this city council meeting remotely via GCI public access channel. It was not an easy decision, but in light of rising cases statewide, we will do what is necessary to protect our employees while still providing reasonable coverage of City Hall.