Tempers flare at Council meeting
An extensive public comment session during Monday’s Common Council meeting centered on the question whether the Council should extend the emergency authority given to City Manager Glenn Steckman in March for another month. After hours of debate and hearing from the public, the Council voted to extend the emergency authority until May 20 with the idea that a resolution be written to give emergency powers to the Council as a body, rather than one person.
The emergency powers were bestowed on City Manager Steckman by the Council on March 17 when little was known how to counter the COVID-19 pandemic and the Council acted to allow the City Manager to “take necessary actions to reduce the impact and spread of COVID-19 throughout the City of Nome.”
The State of Alaska at that time simultaneously enacted several mandates that prescribed social distancing, restricted inter- and intrastate travel to essential people only, mandated a 14-day quarantine to those essential workers who travel to Alaska from the outside, closed non-essential businesses, including bars, restaurants and retail stores and imposed a stay-in-shelter policy.
On Monday night, while the Council debated and heard from citizens, the Governor partially lifted the travel restrictions, opened travel on the road system but kept the travel ban to rural communities off the road system in place as to essential workers only.
In March, the City stood up a Unified Command Center at the Public Safety Building and met regularly with people from Public Health, medical professionals from Norton Sound Health Corporation, local front line emergency personnel among others to assess the developing situation in the rest of the nation and Alaska.
After being advised by local emergency leaders and in consultation with others, as John Handeland explained during the last 30 minutes of the nearly five and a half hour meeting, Manager Steckman enacted a travel permit. The permit is required of people who wish to travel to or through Nome, and mandates a 14-day quarantine. This had the purpose to filter unnecessary travel to Nome, keep the virus at bay and if it were to enter, to provide data to public health officials for contact tracing.
The only difference to state mandates, Steckman explained, is that the city follows up with phone calls to check if people indeed adhere to the quarantine requirements. The state doesn’t do that. Public Health Nurse Deanna Stang sent an email saying that while she agrees with the quarantine, she feels that the city’s follow up phone calls are indeed overreaching. She said it causes more fear and confusion and added that while the state doesn’t enforce quarantine requirements by calling people, there is another mechanism. “If someone is concerned and the individual is violating, an email can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.”
So far, Nome had one confirmed COVID-19 patient, who required no hospitalization and is considered recovered. NSHC now offers extensive testing in Nome and the villages and so far there were no other positive test results.
The shut down of Nome – mandated by the Governor statewide - was interpreted as government overreach by several indignant Nome citizens who attended the meeting in person. More people were commenting by phone, email and texts as the meeting was underway and some put this perceived overreach squarely on the shoulders of Steckman.
Before the meeting began, city officials still limited the amount of people who were allowed in to City Chambers to no more than 20 in total, including council members and city staff. Tempers began to flare, as citizens felt they were shut out of the process and that the City took the public out of a public meeting.
GCI broadcasted the meeting on Channel 12, the Nugget and others in the audience livestreamed the proceedings on Facebook, and the public was encouraged to call in or submit comments via email or texts.
Three councilmembers were present – Mark Johnson, Jerald Brown and Jennifer Reader – as were NPD Chief Mike Heintzelman, NJUS manager John Handeland, Clerk Bryant Hammond, City Manager Glenn Steckman, NVFD Chief Jim West Jr.,Port Commissioner Charlie Lean and two members of the media.
NSHC’s medical director Dr. Mark Peterson was there to give an update on testing and his recommendations for slowly opening Nome to travel. He suggested that as NSHC has ample testing capabilities to allow people to come in, ask for a seven-day quarantine and test them on the first and seventh day of their quarantine.
In citizen’s comments, Howard Farley began loudly arguing and received a rebuke from Councilman Jerald Brown, who led through the meeting, and who asked for an orderly process. Farley maintained that the pandemic is not as serious as protrayed and that in the 60 years that he’s been living in Nome he’s seen a lot, but he could always run his businesses without interference.
“You ruined the Iditarod, now you try to close down fisheries, keep the tourists from coming. We’ve been through a lot, I’ve seen every disease there is. This is a folly for the American people, we got one person in the hospital in Anchorage and we close everything down? For one person? Just because one guy at the World Health Organization says we have a pandemic? And we fell for it hook, line and sinker. I never had anybody tell me what to do. We are being treated like we don’t matter,” Farley said. “You are here to serve us. You are supposed to work for us, but you are not working for us. You guys have got to wake up. We never had a pandemic that closed the country down. Give me a reason.”
Councilman Brown answered the reason is that most people don’t believe that the pandemic is a big conspiracy or fake and that there are mandates from the state.
Farley then turned to Steckman and asked him how long he’s been here. Six months, Steckman said. Farley shook his head and said, “The guy who comes in last runs the show.”
Farley, one of the founders of the Iditarod, also said he would never forgive them for shutting down the Iditarod when it came through in March.
Brown clarified that the city manager didn’t unilaterally shut down businesses, but that state mandates were put in place, dictating the shut down and the travel restrictions. The only thing Nome did was to shorten the hours of alcohol and pot retail stores and “that folks coming have to tell us.”
Student representative Molly Kenick chimed in and said “We follow the guidelines and do our best so that this town doesn’t get sick.”
Farley ended by promising the Council, “If you vote to extend this, you won’t be in office next election time.”
Other citizens testified along the same lines. Jessica Farley, Howard Farley’s daughter-in-law, argued from an economic standpoint that the cure is worse than the pandemic. She said that data does not support the policy of a continued shut down. Businesses are beyond hurting, property values have risen and with it taxes, bills are due and there is no end in sight, she said. She said that there are anecdotal stories that the city is discriminating on who needs to quarantine and who doesn’t. She aded that the prediction models of the virus’ spread are wrong as the one case we had in Nome didn’t end up infecting many people.
Charlie Lean, one of the few sporting a mask at the meeting, got up and pushed back against Howard Farley’s argument that it’s worth to take the risk. Lean said his father and grandfather survived pandemics and TB, but many didn’t. He commended the city for its cautious approach. “I want to open the city slowly. It could be worse if we throw the doors open,” he said.
Other comments ranged from open up the economy and risk that the virus enters and kills up to two percent of the population, to the argument that businesses self regulate and would adhere to best management practices but need customers and guests to survive so that the larger Nome economy can survive.
Others were willing to be inconvenienced and suffer financial losses if it is for the greater good. Teacher Aaron Blankenship called in and lobbied for Nome students. He reminded the Council to take into consideration that if the city opens up too fast, the virus may come in and cause another, longer shutdown period, to the detriment of students learning as they want to come back to school in the fall.
Barb Amarok argued along the same lines, “We need to be cautious and be ready for the second wave.”
Several others asked to lift the intrastate travel restrictions, complained that they cannot travel to Anchorage for shopping trips, others spoke of constitutional infringements on civil liberties and again others brought up that city staff is not responding in a timely manner to questions. Several were under the impression that the city manager made far-reaching decisions in a vacuum and without consultation with affected businesses or organizations, which was later rebuked by NVFD Chief Jim West Jr., John Handeland, the councilmembers and Steckman himself.
Scott Kent said he would support a gradual opening, keep testing and carefully observing the data.
Tom Gray, proprietor of a hunting and guiding business, said he lost tens of thousands of dollars due to the shutdown. Between spending $20,000 on promoting his business in January and refunding cancellations, he said he’s hurting. He didn’t get any of the stimulus money and he suggested the City Council offer Nome businesses a share of the federal grant package coming their way via the state and that the city have a plan B in place when the virus gets here. But, he said, he supports the safe guards put in place to keep Nome and the regional villages safe. “My family has lung problems, believe me, I don’t want it here. When it gets here, it’s going to be a wildfire, especially in the villages,” he said.
The Council then considered the main motion that called for an extension of the emergency authority for another month.
In discussion, councilmembers mulled what they heard.
“The perception is that we got one guy running the show and they want to put the ownership back on us, the elected officials,” Jennifer Reader summarized. Steckman explained that an emergency ordinance needs to be in place, vested in him or in the council,in order to be flexible enough to act fast as emergencies arise. If no emergency authority is in place, the Council is bound by the regular process, which calls for public noticing, two readings and public comment before an ordinance can be passed.
Jennifer Reader offered an amendment to extend the emergency ordinance for only 14 days. It failed three (nays: Mark Johnson, Doug Johnson, Adam Martinson). Doug Johnson said there are state mandates in place to deal with intrastate travel. “You realize that in a few days the city has zero authority to respond to a COVID-19 emergency,” Brown asked. “I don’t have confidence in the current governor to look out for rural Alaska.”
Considering the main motion again, Brown gave the council a second go to introduce a different amendment. Mark Johnson offered the amendment to extend the emergency ordinance until May 20, with the idea that the council meet on May 18 in a work session to formulate an ordinance that would vest emergency powers in the council or extend more council oversight of the city manager via a ratification process.
In other business:
The council voted to do away with the seasonal sales tax increase and keep sales tax at 5 percent due to businesses experiencing COVID-19 hardships.
The council voted to approve a resolution to renew the application by Geo Care to operate a correctional facility (Seaside) in Nome.
The council approved two resolutions dealing with the port. One is to enter into a US DOT grant program for funding of the Snake River moorage and vessel haulout facility. The other resolution approved entering into a cost-share agreement with the US Army Corps of Engineers to compete the Nome harbor section feasibility study.
After NJUS manager and city manager reports, the council addressed the death of Mayor Richard Beneville, who died in the early morning hours that Monday in Nome. Sadness and raw emotion prevailed as the Council bid Mayor Beneville good bye and tasked Clerk Hammond to research the rules for naming a successor.
The council adjourned at 12:27 a.m. Tuesday morning.