Worthington’s Emergency Declaration: Needed now, but let’s Reform the Code later
Following the Governor’s stay-at-home order (effective 3/23/20 at midnight; https://worthington.org/DocumentCenter/View/6280/ODHStay-at-Home-order-03222020), our City Manager issued yesterday a proclamation declaring a state of civil emergency in the city of Worthington. The city’s newsletter described the action as such:
“In order to be prepared and responsive to the evolving [COVID-19] crisis and have the logistical and legal tools needed to assure the continuity of City services, City Manager Matt Greeson has issued a proclamation declaring a State of Civil Emergency in the City of Worthington effective immediately.”
For the complete newsletter, as well as city information on service changes, building closures, vital health and community resources, and links to COVID-19 related information, you can go to the city’s website here: https://worthington.org/1937/Coronavirus-COVID-19
I’d like the reader to know that I take very seriously the threat of COVID-19, especially to our city’s senior residents, and fully support the current action of establishing a state of emergency in Worthington. This proclamation will allow more effective and efficient management of city personnel (importantly, including Fire and Police), the city’s acquisition and purchasing processes, and our eligibility for federal funds related to our management of this crisis.
Beyond the immediate crisis, however, I also take very seriously any action by governments at any level (from federal down to municipal) whereby extraordinary powers are assumed that suspend normal, legal protocol on the exercise of power. I want to stress that I do not fear abuses in our current context, with our current leadership. Yet as a matter of principle and as a safeguard for the future, I will be advocating that our City Council update and amend our city code related to declaring—and ending—a state of emergency (I’ve pasted the relevant code at the bottom of this post).
The issue of proclaiming a state of emergency was first brought before the current Council at our last meeting (Monday, 3/16/20), when we were asked to slightly revise the existing code to explicitly include pandemics as a basis for declaring a civil emergency. The original code, passed back in 1973, included riots, mobs, fires, floods, and snowstorms in its list of events possibly warranting a declaration.
My concerns about the code, as written, relate to how it is declared and how it is to end. In sum, I want to make sure that no one person can accrue extraordinary powers without adequate checks. This could mean establishing protocol that requires the assent of more than one city official in order to declare a state of emergency, and that City Council itself be required to vote on sustaining a state of emergency within a fairly short period of time. These provisions seem prudent to me, and in basic accord with sound principles of self-governance. Based on the initial discussion at Council the other night, I fully expect that this issue can be productively engaged following this current crisis.
I welcome any feedback and dialog. Be well.
The basic questions I posed at Council are:
- What changes legally when a state of civil emergency is declared? Who is empowered to do what? What actions are allowed that previously were not? Are any civil liberties suspended, etc.?
- The process of proclamation seems vague to me. Who is the point person, for instance, deciding whether someone is “unavailable.” What if, say, the City Council pro tem, thinking a proclamation should be issued, wasn’t able to reach the City Manager on the phone? Could they then proclaim an emergency? Is a more rigorous protocol outlined anywhere?
- It would seem prudent to require two of the listed officers, not one, to agree to proclaiming a state of emergency for it to take effect. Not unlike requiring two independent keys in a nuclear silo.
- And how does the state of emergency end? What about having an automatic sunset provision, requiring council to approve a continuation?
507.01 PROCLAMATION OF STATE OF EMERGENCY.
(a) When a civil emergency such as a tumult, riot, mob or body of people acting together with the intent to commit or facilitate the commission of a felony or a misdemeanor, or to do or offer violence to person or property; or by force and violence break or resist the law; or in the event of flood, fire, snowstorm or any other public crisis or disaster, either natural or man- made, affecting life and property and which substantially impairs the functioning of the City government and its ability to protect the lives and property of the people; any of the following named officers of the City, acting in the order herein designated, when the previously named officer or officers are absent from the City or are unavailable or incapable of doing so, are authorized and directed to proclaim the existence of a state of civil emergency in the City or within any prescribed area or areas thereof:
(1) The City Manager;
(2) The Acting City Manager;
(3) The President of Council;
(4) The Director of Law; or
(5) The Chief of Police.
(b) Whoever violates any proclamation issued in accordance with this section is guilty of a misdemeanor in the first degree.
(Ord. 94-73. Passed 12-10-73.)