City leaders declared a state of emergency in Anniston Wednesday, just hours after Calhoun County announced its first confirmed COVID-19 case.
The City Council had met Tuesday and discussed giving Mayor Jack Draper the authority to act in emergency situations tied to COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, without convening the council for approval. Councilman Jay Jenkins floated the possibility during Tuesday’s pre-meeting work session, and the council might have voted on it that night, but city attorney Bruce Downey was unavailable to draft the document immediately before the meeting. Oxford’s City Council had just declared a state of emergency Tuesday.
Council members reconvened with a three-page resolution in hand at 5 p.m. Wednesday and approved the measure, giving Draper and City Manager Steven Folks authority to spend money, hire employees, enter contracts and make various other emergency decisions without scheduling a council meeting in advance.
“Well, quickly deploying resources, quickly purchasing equipment when it comes available when it was not necessarily budgeted for in the last annual budget,” Draper said after the meeting, explaining a few ways the declaration could help the city. “It just authorizes us to quickly act, though we may not even need to. It also probably makes it easier for us to more quickly obtain federal help.”
The resolution passed in a contentious vote, with Councilwoman Millie Harris, Jenkins and Draper voting in favor, and councilmen Ben Little and David Reddick voting against declaring a state of emergency.
Reddick and Little disagreed with part of the resolution which suspends public hearings, public comments and council comments from meetings until the council ends of the state of emergency. After Draper read the resolution in full, Reddick moved to strike that specific passage, and Little seconded.
Harris argued in Tuesday’s work session that meetings should be shorter and discourage in-person visits, citing recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to keep meetings to fewer than 10 people and at least 6 feet between those attendees.
She spoke immediately after the Little seconded the motion.
“I cannot imagine not putting health and safety above anything else,” Harris said, distressed. “That is primary right now. It is the most important thing we can do. I cannot imagine prolonging these meetings or doing anything to put the public in jeopardy. I will not support this.”
Little said he was concerned eliminating public comment would “wipe away public rights.”
“It’s not like if we don’t get out of here in three minutes we’re going to change into a pumpkin or something,” Little said. “If they’re going to sit there while we jackjaw and lip-flap, we should give them the opportunity to say something for a few minutes that they have concern with.”
Reddick said he felt the same.
“You put them in a situation where they’re worried and you say, ‘No, you can’t speak, because we’ve decided we’re more important than you are,’” Reddick said.
At the time, the meeting had only one attendee, seated beside the door, along with three members of the media. Another man entered just before the meeting ended, but neither he nor the first attendee spoke during that time.
The public comment period has long been a battlefield for Little, who on a few occasions has left the council dais to speak from the podium. In 2011, he supported a measure to strike public comment from meetings.
That podium had its microphone removed Tuesday, with Draper noting to a slightly larger audience that microphones are a common disease vector.
Jenkins and Draper both said they wanted to prioritize public safety. Draper noted that both President Donald Trump and Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey have called federal and state emergencies over COVID-19.
“We are here to locally declare a state of emergency; that means it is not business as usual while we are in a state of emergency,” Draper said.
Little and Reddick were the only council members to vote in favor of the amendment.
Little then said that another passage, which stated council members could convene a meeting by phone or on the internet, meant that Draper and Folks would not need authority to act without council approval. He said people at the state and federal level were profiting from the pandemic, and indicated he didn’t agree with or trust their decisions.
Draper said that if an emergency allowed enough time, he would make “every effort” to convene a meeting.
“Unless it’s something that just has to be decided right then, I think every effort would be made to try to convene a meeting wherein we could all call in,” Draper explained. “This gives us the authority to do something in the event it’s necessary.”
“My issue is, none of that is in writing,” Reddick said. “We’re giving the mayor the power to do whatever, but ‘just trust us that we wouldn’t.’”
“I commit to make every effort,” Draper started.
“It ain’t in writing,” Reddick said.
“I need to be in the loop on what’s going on before some things are made,” Little said.
Harris, seemingly frustrated, said she had full faith in the mayor and city manager.
Afterward, during council discussion about the resolution to enact the state of emergency, Little again argued for public discussion in meetings.
“I just don’t believe that a few minutes — you said we want to get out of here as quick as possible — if they’re contaminated and they’re in here talking, it’s in the air already,” Little said.
According to the CDC, COVID-19 is transmitted via water droplets expelled from a person’s mouth or nose when they sneeze or cough. The virus is not airborne. It does survive on surfaces for as much as several days according to the National Institutes of Health, however — surfaces such as the council-facing podium on which speakers often lay their hands while talking.
Little said that even a single minute would be long enough for public comments from residents. As he spoke, he had already gone beyond his allotted three-minute discussion time, as indicated by a clock on the council table.
Reddick said he couldn’t support declaring a state of emergency if public comments were cut. He also said he didn’t trust the mayor with the authority to act without the council’s approval.
“We just have to trust you wouldn’t do anything? Nah, that’s too far,” Reddick said. “Too far.”