At a special city council meeting on March 16, councilmembers voted unanimously to affirm a proclamation issued on March 13 by Blaine city manager Michael Jones declaring a local emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the meeting, which took place at 5 p.m. in the Blaine council chambers and was attended personally by six councilmembers (Eric Davidson was excused) in addition to Jones and city attorney Jon Sitkin, city council passed Resolution 1800-20 by a vote of 6 to 0.
“The city council for the city of Blaine confirms the proclamation hereby and expressly finds and declares … that COVID-19 is a civil emergency that exists within the boundaries of the city that poses a real and immediate threat to the proper performance of the essential functions of the city,” the resolution states. “Further, … this emergency may result in, or threatens to result in, the material loss or damage to property or the death or serious bodily injury of persons, to such an extent as to require, in this legislative and elected body’s discretion, extraordinary measures to protect the public peace, safety, health and welfare.”
The resolution confirmed the authority of the city manager to: make necessary rules and regulations reasonably related to the emergency; obtain supplies, equipment, personal property and professional, procured or technical services (including selecting and awarding such contracts as necessary); authorize overtime or extended leave for city personnel; requisition personnel and material; obtain emergency funding and permitting through federal, state and local agencies; and take other lawful acts as may be necessary and reasonably related to the emergency situation.
“Nothing herein shall provide the authority to seize personal or real property without just compensation to be paid,” the resolution noted, without elaborating further.
The resolution also requires Jones to report to city council on any executive actions taken pursuant to his emergency proclamation. Specifically, Jones must provide “explanation as to why it was necessary to take such action to meet the emergency situation articulated herein.” At each regular city council meeting for the foreseeable future, councilmembers shall review Jones’ proclamation and their affirming resolution as a regular agenda item until such time as the emergency measures are terminated.
“The intent of the city council is that the resolution and proclamation shall terminate at such time as either the city manager or the city council has determined that emergency circumstances necessitating the proclamation and the resolution have passed,” the resolution states. This “intent statement” was added to the resolution by Sitkin following input from councilmember Richard May, who was concerned that the earlier version did not specify when, if ever, the emergency measures would cease.
Other key provisions of the resolution include a change in city council’s rules of procedure to allow for remote attendance of city council meetings by councilmembers, and a requirement that the emergency measures be implemented “subject to the availability of budgetary appropriations.”
Draft pandemic response plan drawn up
At the meeting, Jones also distributed copies of a draft pandemic response plan that city staff compiled using a template from public health authorities. “It’s very hot off the presses,” he told councilmembers. “It’s been a working document up until this afternoon.”
While the plan does not detail all of the specific activities that may occur locally during a pandemic, it provides a general overview of the city’s response methods. The plan identifies the city manager as the city’s pandemic response coordinator, and it itemizes many of the essential functions of each city department. “What this talks about is those things that are of greatest priority,” Jones explained. “Things like maintaining the electrical system are so much more important than filling potholes, so we won’t worry about filling potholes during the pandemic if we don’t have enough personnel to get everything done. ... It doesn’t specifically say we won’t do things, but it tells us what our priorities are.”
The plan also contains an order of succession, itemizing who will be in authority if their superior is not present. The plan includes letters delegating authority, so that if a key staff member is absent, another staff member can quickly sign documents, make decisions and take action. “It’s automatic under this plan for that to occur,” Jones said.
City manager takes action to assist CAP
At the meeting, Jones advised councilmembers that earlier in the day, he had used his emergency powers to provide the Blaine Library’s conference room to the Community Assistance Program (CAP). The non-profit organization, which is supported by local churches, had vacated its regular office due to concerns about transmission of the new coronavirus. “The [conference] room has been provided to CAP so that they can continue to provide their services during the pandemic,” Jones said. “[CAP] provides people with emergency services, such as money for food or to pay utility bills, those kinds of urgent needs. They had been asked to leave the facility they normally use, so they found themselves without an office, and we were able to solve that problem this morning.”
Jones said that normally this action would have required an amendment to the interlocal agreement that exists between the city of Blaine and the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). Such an amendment would have likely required approval by city council and the WCLS board during normal circumstances. However, because of his emergency powers, Jones was able to partially rescind the interlocal agreement unilaterally. He noted that his decision was made after consultation with WCLS executive director Christine Perkins, who was “100 percent supportive,” he said.
CAP volunteer Dan DeMent said that CAP had been required to vacate its previous office, located at Blaine’s Christ Episcopal Church, due to the statewide closure of all Episcopal facilities. He said that while CAP had not yet used the library conference room as of March 23, the non-profit planned to conduct screening interviews there for its crisis assistance program, which offers financial assistance for utility bills and prescriptions. The program also provides some food assistance to those in dire need.
“If it’s needed to do the interviews, that space will allow us to have the distance that we need,” DeMent said. “We anticipate that we’ll start seeing calls from people who’ve gotten laid off.” DeMent said that Blaine residents can support CAP’s work during this difficult period by visiting blainecap.org and making an online donation. “We could go through funds pretty quickly” due to high demand, he said.
City takes other steps in response to pandemic
In response to the pandemic, other steps are being taken to minimize the spread of the virus, Jones said. This includes twice-daily cleanings of frequently touched surfaces in city facilities, ranging from public telephones and elevator buttons to coffee pots. He also said that council chambers are being sanitized regularly, and that all city staff are being asked to contribute to cleaning efforts. “It is work being shared by everyone, not just the janitorial crew,” he said.
Sanitizing products have been distributed to all city staff, and many meetings are now being conducted using teleconferencing tools. The Blaine Welcome Center was also closed at the end of the workday on March 16. “We’re finding that there aren’t that many people coming in, as you might imagine,” Jones said. “The volunteers are mostly in the more susceptible age range, and so the volunteers had expressed some concerns.”
New passport appointments are no longer being accepted. For existing passport appointments, social distancing protocols have been implemented, such as requiring members of the public to use hand sanitizer due to the large volume of documents typically handed back and forth during such appointments. Those who refuse to use hand sanitizer will not be served. “We’re asking them for that courtesy,” Jones said.
Jones also said that the city is implementing work-from-home programs. For some city staff who have overlapping functions, they are alternating their time in the office, in order to minimize their exposure to others who might be carrying the new coronavirus. Other city staff who perform critical work such as payroll might soon be required to work from home, in order to keep them healthy and working. “We don’t have a lot of depth in our bench,” he said.
Jones said that the city has started tracking many of its coronavirus-related expenses, since some of them might be reimbursable by the state government. Reimbursable expenses could potentially include mass purchases of hand sanitizer and other disinfecting products, as well as overtime for police officers and wastewater treatment plant staff.
Other actions were also being weighed, Jones said, including: waiving credit card convenience fees for online bill payments to limit residents’ interactions with the city cashier; adjusting sick leave use and donation policies to accommodate self-quarantine; cancellation of non-essential board and committee meetings; shortening civic meetings to reduce in-person contact; and temporarily halting water and electric shut-offs.