Assembly Passes ‘Hunker Down’ Resolution

Category: Local News
Created on Wednesday, 25 March 2020 15:48

By SHANNON HAUGLAND
Sentinel Staff Writer

At the first-ever videoconference Assembly meeting Tuesday night, members took care of a mix of regular business and items related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The main item of business was approval of a “hunker down” proclamation on COVID-19 preventative measures. The proclamation is printed in full on Page 2 of today’s Sentinel. 

Assembly members Kevin Knox, Steven Eisenbeisz, Kevin Mosher, Thor Christianson, Richard Wein and Mayor Gary Paxton took part in the meeting from their homes in Sitka. Valorie Nelson was online, voice only, from St. Louis, Missouri, where she is visiting family.

On their home computers, iPads and iPhones the six Assembly members in Sitka could see and talk to each other, and also with the three city officials at Centenial Hall.

City Administrator John Leach, Attorney Brian Hanson and Clerk Sara Peterson observed “social distancing” in the Assembly’s regular meeting room.

A few members of the public were also present, including three or four who were there with specific business, and KSCT-TV videographer Dan Etulain. Other media covered the meeting remotely. 

 

Assembly members, seen on screen at upper left, meet via video conferencing connection Tuesday at Harrigan Centennial Hall Tuesday. Pictured at the meeting table are, from left, Municipal Attorney Brian Hanson, Administrator John Leach and Municipal Clerk Sara Peterson. (Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

 

The city provided a link on its website allowing the public to watch the meeting in real-time video. Staff and Assembly members were connected through the videoconference program Zoom, so they could have face-to-face discussions.

City staff had encouraged the public to testify in writing, and not attend in person, to comply with Gov. Dunleavy’s mandate to limit gatherings to 10 people, and also follow state and federal recommendations for preventing and slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

Peterson said today that staff is working on solutions to allow the public to testify remotely at the meetings.

A range of opinions were expressed during the 90-minute meeting on city and state actions related to the virus, but the majority of Assembly members were pleased with the multiagency response locally, which included a “hunker down” – or “shelter in place”  – recommendation.

 

‘Hunker Down’

The Assembly approved a resolution “ordering people in the City and Borough of Sitka to hunker down related to COVID-19.”

The resolution takes note of the six confirmed coronavirus cases so far in Ketchikan, and one in Juneau, and Sitka’s direct air travel connections to those communities.

In the Be It Resolved section, is a “stay home order,” a “noncritical business closure order,”  and a “social distancing order for critical businesses or entities.”

Voting in favor were Paxton, Mosher, Knox, Wein, Christianson and Eisenbeisz. Nelson voted against it.

Throughout the meeting a number of comments were made related to actions by the city government, emergency responders and medical leadership team, including the decision-making process, and discussions on what is and is not possible or practical.

Responding to testimony from a member of the public critical that the city had not taken stronger preventative action earlier, and needed stronger restrictions in place, Fire Chief Dave Miller, the city’s emergency manager, said leaders are “spending lots and lots of time dealing with this,” including considering all the practical and legal options available for stemming the spread of the virus here.

“That’s what we have to look at when we do things: is it legal, is it morally the right thing to do – it’s all of those things,” Miller said. “Those are things I get paid to do.”

But he said ultimately it’s the responsibility of members of the community to respond to the crisis, by following Centers for Disease Control and the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services recommendations. He thanked those who are stepping up by continuing to offer needed services, including grocery store and restaurant deliveries, and volunteers offering to help others.

“The way we’re going to stop this is to go back to basics of what we do: wash your hands, stay away from each other, cough into your sleeve and not into the world on everybody else, and if you’re not feeling well, stay home,” he said. 

He asked those who are sick to call first, not just go to the medical facilities, and said the “safest thing you can do” is stay away from other people.

“We’ve preached that for three months now - those are things we can do to save ourselves,” Miller said. “As a city ... this entity and the fire department and SEARHC hospital, we’re doing everything we can do.”

The resolution ordering Sitkans to “hunker down” was co-sponsored by Knox and Eisenbeisz.

Wein said the resolution was “nothing new under the sun here,” and represented “basic public health.”

“It’s not a mandate, per se,” he said.

Nelson said she was concerned about a “knee-jerk reaction” and didn’t want decisions made “out of fear.” She noted the need for balance in addressing the virus, and including the public in the decision-making process.

“If we give up every liberty we have because of fear we are doomed,” she said. But she said she plans to follow rules and recommendations, including the two-week quarantine when she returns to Sitka.

Knox said he co-sponsored the ordinance to encourage people to take the risks seriously; Eisenbeisz said, “I hope in two months, we said this was overkill.”

“One thing I’m not willing to do is under-react,” he said. “I don’t want to wait until Sitka is a hotspot and failed to take action.”

Leach placed an item on the agenda at the end of the meeting related to Assembly questions.

Eisenbeisz said he’s working with Knox on solutions for people having trouble paying bills, as a result of the economic downturn resulting from the spread of the coronavirus.

Mosher said he would prefer “case by case” considerations.

“We also have to keep in mind fiscally the city has to pay the bond debt every month,” he said. But help should be available for those in need, he said, and he hopes work is underway for getting help for Sitka on the federal level.

Other solutions were discussed under the agenda item for preventing the spread of the virus in Sitka, with reasons given for why certain solutions would or would not work.

“The best thing is sheltering at home at the moment,” Wein said.

Moving on to fiscal items under the same topic, Wein said the Assembly needs to start considering “readjusting our assumptions” related to the budget.

“We need to create a layered and measured way on how we’re going to deal with the shortfall,” he said. “We are already in a shortfall. ... We need to have a layered thought process to begin that.”

 

In other action, the Assembly:

– passed on introduction, by a 7-0 vote, an ordinance for employee benefits that may vary from personnel policies, “specifically authorizing and ratifying up to 14 days of paid administrative leave per the Municipal Administrator’s flowchart in response to COVID-19 essential operations.” Wein asked for more information on the costs but voted in favor, along with the other Assembly members. He also asked what happens on Day 15.

- passed on final reading a budget ordinance to increase appropriations by $88,500 for legal expenses regarding lawsuits against the Sitka Police Department. Funds will come out of the general fund. Two of the three lawsuits related to the police department have been settled. The vote was 5-2, with Nelson and Wein voting against.

– turned down on final reading an ordinance adding $30,000 for the Crescent Harbor Lightering Float Repairs. Members agreed that there was no pressing need for the repairs right now, given the delay or cancellation of the cruise ship season, and the need to cut city expenses.

“Today is a different day than it was two weeks ago,” Eisenbeisz said, referring to the ordinance’s passage on introduction at the last meeting. “I think the Assembly needs to take a very close look at all monies going out over the next year at least because we’re going to be very, very short on money. ... Every fund, general fund and enterprise funds included, are going to need to save all the dollars they can for basic operations. All seven voted against it.

– passed 7-0 on final reading an ordinance to add a definition of “bulk retail” to the zoning code. If approved, bulk retail will be a conditional use in the Industrial zone. The request was made by Sitka Bulk Goods, which is located on Price Street in an Industrial zone. The business will need to apply for a conditional use permit through the Planning Commission, planning staff said.