Manhattan will not immediately pursue a city-specific emergency resolution amid the COVID-19 pandemic after a testy-at-times discussion by city commissioners.
A majority of city commissioners previously expressed interest in discussing the resolution, though three of the five representatives Tuesday voiced opposition to the idea following a briefing by City Attorney Katie Jackson and conversation among the board. There was no official vote as the item was just up for discussion, not an official reading on any resolution.
Cities have home rule authority to legislate in the interest of public health and safety if not in conflict with state or federal law. They also have the power to pass an emergency resolution under that authority, though it differs from state and county emergency declarations as no additional authority is given to cities in these situations — unlike other governing jurisdictions.
“Instead, a city declaration of emergency or disaster is about delegating powers to either specific positions in the city or limiting city procedures and operations or impacting the way the city functions,” says Jackson.
Both the state and Riley County have emergency declarations in place, with Kansas’ expiring September 15 and the county’s on December 31.
The declaration is not required for reimbursement through state and federal disaster agencies — FEMA and KDEM — though Jackson says some cities have reported it’s sped up the process. Jackson also says such a resolution would serve as support for additional emergency actions if the commission should choose to go that route — especially if those actions were in the realms the county was already regulating.
“It’s the city declaring it has its own disaster and it’s going to take its own steps separate from what the county, the state or the federal government have done.”
Those could be different regulations or limitations of special event permits or other alterations of city operations. Jackson says the resolution could also be implemented at a future date when the commission was prepared to implement another resolution responding to the pandemic. The resolution would go into effect immediately and could be passed just before another action.
Jackson further says provisions within the declaration would have to be able to be implemented via resolution and not ordinance. As such, something like the mask ordinance would have required separate action outside of a disaster resolution.
Mayor Usha Reddi and Commissioner Linda Morse supported the item. Reddi strongly advocated for the resolution, saying Manhattan needs to take proactive, preventative steps specifically with city residents in mind. She further believed it would set the city government up to respond with action if cases spike in the near future as Kansas State University students return to the community in preparation for the start of the Fall semester on August 17.
“I feel there might be a time when we’re going to have to make some really big decisions within our own ordinances and within the city that may not impact the entire Riley County,” says Reddi. “Because we are not in a rural area.”
Morse further advocated for the resolution, saying the Riley County Commission has previously over-rode, ignored or ‘derailed’ efforts by Local Health Officer Julie Gibbs to respond to the pandemic in the entire county’s interest. She says Manhattan waiting for Riley County to act or not is a ‘stand off’ and the city should pursue its own path.
“The county commission consists of politicians who run for office, they have no expertise in health whatsoever but they are overruling the science part,” says Morse. “It’s true that that’s a reflection […] of the division in our country between science and politics and I will fall on the side of public health.
“I don’t have anything in mind right now, I just think that […] because of the failure of the county commission we need to be able to act in the best interests of our citizens.”
Ultimately, Mayor Pro Tem Wynn Butler and Commissioners Mark Hatesohl and Aaron Estabrook voiced opposition to the resolution.
“I don’t want us having the ability to limit and restrict business anymore than is already being constricted and limited,” says Hatesohl. “Things need to get back to normal far more than they need to have another level of government poking their nose around thinking we know better than the state or the county about what’s going on.
“I know you guys are big on ‘oh, home rule this, home rule that,’ but the point is if you three disagree with the county and the state on anything then you just crammed another bunch of regulations on people and using the emergency declaration as the excuse to do it.”
Estabrook questioned Hatesohl’s grouping of Reddi, Morse and Estabrook into a single camp. He says there may be a case where the city should step in and act if the county overrode a recommendation from Gibbs, adding Hatesohl’s stance was apparent by wearing his mask in a way that did not cover his nose.
While also extending criticism to the county commission’s past approaches to the pandemic, Estabrook questioned the necessity of the resolution — particularly at this time. Instead, Estabrook wanted to focus on any specific ideas in response to COVID-19 rather than an emergency declaration at this time.
“Declaring an emergency next week or in the next 10 days or whatever from the city is only going to confuse the heck out of everybody in the community,” says Estabrook. “It’s going to create a panic and a way that it almost gets us nothing in return.”
Estabrook did say he would support a resolution in the event the county commission failed to take action or overrode the health officer in safeguarding public health if cases do spike. Hatesohl expressed a similar thought in that event also, though strongly opposed the resolution currently.
Reddi, though, says there already is public panic and concern within the community about returning students to K-State and K-12 education.
“We need to do something instead of waiting for others to do things for us and then reacting,” Reddi says, noting that if positive cases among students followed the approximately 10 percent positive rate seen when K-State football players returned to campus there would quickly be thousands of active cases.
Butler and Hatesohl pressed Reddi for further details on what further needs to be done, noting the existing mask ordinance that was anticipated to be renewed in September. They asked whether there was a desire to shut down bars and stop K-State football from playing.
“There are a lot of discussions we need to have still about all of the things we still need to do, doing nothing is not an option,” Reddi says.
Hatesohl pushed again for specifics, questioning whether they are old ideas being re-approached or new ‘bright ideas.’ Morse took issue with how he approached the discussion.
“I think your aggressive accusations are out of place,” says Morse. “I would like to have calm conversations with mutual respect and not any bullying or calling people names or flame-throwing.”
Reddi responded saying the resolution is not a power grab and that she doesn’t have a ‘grandiose plan’, but wants to work toward possible solutions collectively with the commission and other community groups.
“Doing nothing right now is going to have everything shut down much faster than you realize,” Reddi says.
Estabrook again questioned what would be achieved with the resolution, saying task forces and committees in the community have been in place and reiterated he’d like to spend time talking about other potential actions to address the pandemic.
“What we learned tonight is this declaration does nothing to prevent us from […] doing those things,” says Estabrook. “If that’s where we’re going to, we should talk about that rather than starting with the end result which is a declaration of emergency.”
Butler compared it to responding to a tornado disaster, saying such declarations are not made before the twister hits town.
“Let’s say for instance, as Commissioner Reddi is predicting, the worst happens — K-State brings in a bunch of students and we get so many patients we can’t house them at the hospital,” says Butler. “We declare this emergency, we take the funds that the city has, we rent a hotel, we quarantine people…
“I can fully understand that, but you have to have the problem first.”
Estabrook also says that the decision Tuesday was not the last say on the item, adding that the discussion will continue and future action may be necessary depending on what plays out in the coming months.
Reddi called the commission’s decision ‘sad’ and ‘extremely disappointing.’
“We have a lot to work on and we need a document in place, a resolution in place to speak some of these items as they come before us instead of saying ‘it’s already happened, let’s do something now.'”