On the afternoon of March 13, Blaine city manager Michael Jones issued a proclamation declaring a state of emergency related to the COVID-19 outbreak. The proclamation allows the city to modify policies and procedures so that the city can move more quickly and efficiently to address issues presented by the outbreak as they arise.
“Issuing the proclamation is a technical administrative step,” Jones said in a March 13 press release posted to the city’s website, cityofblaine.com. “It might sound alarming because it uses the word ‘emergency,’ but really it just allows the city to be more responsive to the needs that may arise over the next few weeks. Under a declaration, we can take steps such as expediting purchasing or changing rules related to the use of sick leave.”
According to the release, Jones consulted with city councilmembers in advance of the declaration. A special city council meeting has been scheduled for Monday, March 16 at 5 p.m. where city council is expected to pass a resolution supporting the proclamation. While the city manager has legal authority to issue such a proclamation and there is no mandate for city council to confirm it, Jones believed a resolution was appropriate so that councilmembers could discuss and reaffirm his decision.
At the meeting, Jones will also be requesting that city council amend its rules to allow councilmembers to attend meetings remotely. “The current rules are very restrictive, essentially requiring city councilmembers to be physically in attendance at city council meetings,” the press release said. “The change will make it easier for the city to operate while supporting virus control through things like social distancing.”
In further remarks to The Northern Light, Jones said that the proclamation will give the city more flexibility as it seeks to operate as smoothly and normally as possible during the COVID-19 outbreak. One of the main goals of the proclamation is to give the city more flexibility to adapt its sick leave policy to the circumstances. “If someone were to quarantine themselves but they weren’t actually sick, our normal policy would say ‘time off without pay’ because they weren’t sick,” Jones explained. “However, during the pandemic, it might be more appropriate to let someone do that and use sick leave.”
The proclamation will also make it easier for the city to award contracts, so that there is no disruption to residents if city workers get sick and outside help is needed. “If we had a number of employees in one area that were out sick and we needed to contract with a local contractor to provide a certain service that we didn’t have enough employees to do, we could contract without putting that out to an open bid, in order to be efficient,” Jones explained, adding that he didn’t anticipate any specific contracts being awarded as a result of the emergency.
Jones said that while some city staff already work from home occasionally, he expected more staff members to begin working from home in the coming days. He said an additional 10 laptop computers have been distributed to city employees who didn’t already have laptops as part of their regular equipment. “We’ll also be looking at programs that may include the employees who do the same job alternating their attendance in the office,” he said.
Jones’ proclamation may also make it easier for the city of Blaine to receive federal emergency funding, with Congress currently debating a stimulus package. “We have to wait to see what happens at the federal level, but a proclamation of emergency may assist in that regard,” he said.
Asked whether city council meetings will continue to be held, Jones said absolutely. “Absolutely council meetings will continue to happen and we will make every effort to comply with the Open Public Meetings Act,” he said. He said that even if councilmembers choose to attend the meetings remotely, council chambers will remain open for the public. “Members of the public will be welcome to attend, listen in and watch,” he said. “The public will be able to observe the functions of government.”
For those who do not wish to attend in person, the city is currently exploring software that could allow up to a few hundred people to observe a city council meeting remotely. Currently, this option does not exist; those who wish to observe must attend in person or download an audio recording of the meeting, which is typically posted on the city’s website one or two days later.
Jones said that the city has not been stockpiling anything beyond what is normally purchased for city facilities. He urged residents to remain calm, wash their hands frequently and follow other advice from the county health department. He could not comment on whether he has heard of any coronavirus cases or tests occurring in the city of Blaine. “I can’t comment,” he said in response to the question. “To comment on that might violate someone’s [health information privacy] rights.”
Meanwhile, Blaine’s public works department took steps to keep city residents safe by installing hand-sanitizing stations around the city. No public works staff members had started working from home as of March 13. The department had an ample supply of cleaning supplies and other essentials, said Blaine public works director Ravyn Whitewolf.
“For us, we consider all of the services that we provide to be essential,” said Whitewolf. “We take very seriously our need to protect the public. We’re doing what the health department says. We’re advising employees to wash their hands frequently, and we are wiping down surfaces in shared workspaces twice a day. We have a chain of command in case someone happens to fall down with the virus. We’re doing everything we can to stay well ourselves.”