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Extensive Public Comments Cause City Council to Temporarily Extend Local Emergency Ordinance

Many citizens commented during the meeting but were forced to do so by e-mail or telephone as social distancing prohibited them from attending the meeting.

After a contentious five-and-a-half-hour meeting, the Nome City Council voted to extend the local emergency ordinance through next week [May 20th]. This ordinance authorizes the City Manager to restrict travel and limit non-essential businesses, if deemed necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19. That’s in spite of the state’s latest mandate on intrastate travel.

Nearly 40 citizens made verbal, electronic, or telephonic comments to the Council during their regular meeting Monday night. Many of those people were against renewing the emergency ordinance, which originally contained language to extend it through July.
The City Council does have rules to regulate citizens comments, including that there will not be further debate with the public during their comment. At times Monday night, this was violated by Councilmember Jerald Brown, who was serving as the Acting Mayor in place of the late Mayor Richard Beneville (who died early Monday morning). And, although they have the authority, the Nome City Council did not set a time limit for each individual’s comments.

Some, like Nome’s Howard Farley, believe the state and local mandates have gone too far. Farley called the worldwide reaction to the virus “a folly” and demanded Nome open back up to the rest of the state, including allowing normal air traffic.

“You gave your City Manager dictatorial powers. I have never had anybody tell me what to do. We are law abiding citizens and we are being treated like we don’t matter.”

– Howard Farley

Despite the authority given to the City Manager in the original emergency ordinance, the closures of non-essential businesses in Nome were first implemented by Governor Mike Dunleavy’s administration.

Farley expressed dismay that commercial fishermen would have to quarantine before working in the summer fishery, and that local hotels, like the Aurora, are sitting empty with the absence of tourists and birders.

His sentiments were echoed by many Monday night. Other citizens argued that they believe the recovery rate for the disease is high and so Nome should go back to normal operations. At this point, various health experts are reporting differing numbers for the mortality rate of COVID-19.

What an overwhelming majority of Nome residents wanted on Monday night, was a return to non-permitted and non-regulated air travel. Locally, the City Manager does have the authority to do away with travel permits. Some Nome residents like Jessica Farley questioned whether those permits were even being enforced fairly. Farley owns a new hotel that she’s been trying to use for quarantine, and said she doesn’t understand why some of her customers are being cleared as “essential” and others aren’t. 

Also in attendance Monday night were some like Nome resident Charlie Lean, who did not feel that the emergency ordinances were misguided. He advocated for the slow and safe re-opening of the city.

“Whether Mr. Farley likes it or not, he should thank the State of Alaska for saving his butt.”

– Charlie Lean

Most of the Councilmembers agreed that the virus is not a hoax and is a real, potential threat. Councilmember Jerald Brown reminded the Council that Nome acts as a wall to prevent the potential spread of COVID-19 to the region’s villages. He opted for being cautious in resuming local travel and business.

“I personally don’t accept the premise that sacrificing 1-2 % of the population for the enriching of 20% of the rest of the population is acceptable. And also acknowledge it’s not just the one or two people out of 100 that would die but the 20 people that are going to end up at the hospital with problems for years or possibly the rest of their life.”

– Councilmember Jerald Brown

Councilmembers Brown and Meghan Topkok advocated for some type of extension to Nome’s emergency ordinance. Without an emergency ordinance, the Council would be powerless to take immediate steps to mitigate the spread of the disease, if Nome saw a resurgence of COVID-19. Also, the Council would need to hold two public hearings to pass a regular ordinance, a process that can take weeks. With an emergency ordinance in place, an order can be passed after a giving 24 hours of public notice.

So, Councilmember Jennifer Reader proposed passing an amended ordinance that potentially puts the responsibility of making mandates on the City Council rather than the City Manager. Although Glenn Steckman was put in a position of power by the elected Council, she understands that Nome doesn’t currently feel represented by his decisions.

“I think people would feel way more comfortable if we put our name on the bottom line. So I have no problem with going for another two weeks so that something else can be written.”

– Councilmember Jennifer Reader

Councilmembers Adam Martinson and Doug Johnson voted against any extension of an emergency ordinance. But City Clerk Bryant Hammond recommended that Reader’s suggested changes be reviewed by the city solicitor before a final vote, hence the extension until May 20th. Overall, all six Councilmembers were amenable to finding ways to safely re-open Nome.

Monday night’s true point of contention was Nome’s travel permit and quarantine requirement. Travelers to Nome can only be required to quarantine for 14 days if Nome has a local emergency ordinance in place that mandates it. Dr. Mark Peterson, medical director for Norton Sound Health Corporation, recommended the City Council shorten the quarantine in Nome to seven days with a test at the beginning and end of individual’s travels in and out of the city.

As this week’s City Council meeting was in session, the state released a clarified intrastate travel mandate that extended the limits for travel off the road system to include critical personal needs and essential services.

Regardless, the City of Nome is still asking anyone coming into the city to do a 14-day quarantine and submit a travel permit. The state has not challenged Nome’s travel ordinance. Alaska state mandates still require a 14-day quarantine for all out-of-state travelers who want to travel anywhere in Alaska.

The Nome City Council will be meeting in special session sometime before May 20th to review this latest revised emergency ordinance, which would take some power out of the City Manager’s hands. The timing and location of that special session is yet to be announced.

Image at top: Roughly 40 citizens made comments during Monday’s Nome City Council meeting, but most had to relay their input through e-mail or telephone, as social distancing prohibited everyone from attending the meeting in person. Photo from Emily Hofstaedter, KNOM (2020).

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