Residents express contempt for emergency provisions

The community had the opportunity to speak out in support or against a permanent civil emergency provisions ordinance at a virtual town hall on Sept. 10, though the feedback the Borough Assembly received was mostly negative.

The Petersburg Borough requested those who wanted to ask questions during the town hall to submit them about a week in advance to allow borough staff time to answer the questions. The public could still ask questions at the end of the town hall, which began with presentations on the emergency ordinance by borough staff.

To begin the community feedback portion of the town hall, Moderator Sarah F. Fine read the submitted questions and provided answers out loud. Brian Lynch, Assembly Member Jeff Meucci and Marjorie Oines all submitted questions.

Lynch requested borough staff explain the legality of a portion of the civil emergency provisions ordinance that allows the borough manager, incident commander or Borough Assembly to prohibit public gatherings during an emergency or disaster.

According to a written response in a document provided during the town hall meeting, the United States Supreme Court held that constitutional rights may be reasonably restricted to combat a public health emergency in Jacobson v. Massachusetts. The ruling was made over 115 years ago during an outbreak of smallpox.

This year, plaintiffs in a case against the state of California asserted that shelter-in-place orders were a violation of their right to exercise of religion. Courts upheld the verdict in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, ruling in favor of the defendant.

Meucci asked a series of questions related to the effects the emergency ordinance would have on life in Petersburg.

Because the civil emergency provisions would only be in place if an emergency is declared by the borough manager, everyday life in the borough would not be affected should the emergency ordinance pass in its third reading on Monday, according to the document.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the assembly passed a shelter in place mandate, but it was soon overtaken by several state health orders. Since early April, no other local mandates that closed non-essential businesses have been issued, according to the document. Local health mandates that ordered evacuations, curfews and limitations on single gatherings have never been enacted.

The document clarified that the borough would have the final say in all emergency response matters and currently has authority to issue emergency orders and mandates.

Oines submitted an amendment to the civil emergency provisions ordinance that assures residents have the right to defend themselves and property, and items used to protect themselves can't be confiscated.

A written response in the document said the Alaska Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms in defense and prevents municipalities from confiscating firearms.

The borough assembly did not vote for or against Oines' amendment, because the town hall meeting was not an assembly meeting; therefore, no action was taken.

After Fine read through the submitted questions and responses, the public had their opportunity to ask additional questions or express their opinions on the emergency ordinance. All three residents that called into the meeting were critical of the permanent civil emergency provisions ordinance.

Dana Thynes said the emergency ordinance allows an overreach of the public sector and cautioned the public to not let their liberty be silently stolen.

"Totalitarian governments can come about through legal means and quickly," said Thynes. "People forget Hitler never stole an election. Hitler was elected legally by a vote of the people."

Rob Schwartz said while fires and tsunamis eventually come to an end, the current pandemic hasn't ended after six months of emergency protocols in place. During an emergency, Schwartz said he has a duty to protect his family and would not comply with the emergency ordinance.

"You can pack the jails, but as far as I'm concerned, this is absolute B.S.," said Schwartz.

Other members of the public submitted written responses prior to the town hall. The Borough Assembly received nine letters, seven of which were against the emergency ordinance.

Residents against the permanent civil emergency provisions cited similar concerns over personal rights being taken away and borough officials having too much authority.

"I understand that no one intends to miss use [sic] the power that would be established by this document and that the push behind it is intended for the common good," wrote Bosjun Reid. "However, this document is unbelievably out of line."

Bill Tremblay and Jim Schwartz both submitted letters supporting the emergency ordinance.

Tremblay writes that while there are protocols in place, there are still residents who don't follow them. During a public health concern, Tremblay said the community should rely on medical professionals.

"The discussion is about our general welfare as stated in the preamble of our Constitution," wrote Tremblay. "It isn't about 'individual rights,' as some have protested, since we've seen that many rights provided in our Constitution have been clarified to benefit the general public over time."

In his response, Jim Schwartz noted the death toll of COVID-19 and the effect protocols like social distancing and face masking have had on the virus' spread. He credited the strict protocols Alaska Airlines has put in place as a cause for Petersburg's low case count.

"If this coronavirus flares up strongly in Petersburg, we will need to mandate safety measures to protect the most vulnerable in our community-our family, our friends, our neighbors," wrote Schwartz. "Please make sure that the emergency powers are in place to stop the deadly disease here in Petersburg."


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