HALLOWELL — Proposed ordinance amendments aimed to clarify the role of city staff in emergency response came under fire this week from one councilor who believes it gives too much decision-making power with the city manager.
Councilor Kate Dufour, who is also the chairperson of the city’s Ordinance Rewrite Committee, said the draft changes were a “temporary fix” for conflict between Chapters 4 and 12 of the city’s ordinances, which muddle the role of city officials in the event of emergencies.
Dufour said the changes aim to “clearly define the roles” of members of the council, the Emergency Operations team and city staff. She said Chapter 12, which contains procedures for the city’s Emergency Management Plan, of the city’s ordinance assigns crisis management to the City Council, while Chapter 4, which deals with public safety, assigns management to the City Manager.
While those ordinances may offer different guidance, a clause in Chapter 4 states “at all times when an emergency proclamation is in effect, the orders, rules and regulations made and promulgated pursuant to this ordinance shall supersede all existing ordinances, orders, rules and regulations.”
Dufour said her draft amendments put crisis management responsibility with the city manager, who would be guided by an “Emergency Operations Staff.” That staff would be comprised of Mayor Mark Walker, City Council President George Lapointe, the City Council’s Protection Committee Chairperson Diano Circo, Emergency Management Director and Fire Chief Jim Owens, Police Chief Scott MacMaster and Public Works Director and Highway Foreman Chris Buck.
That staff would receive guidance from the City Council.
According to the draft, the City Council would be tasked with “providing expertise and guidance to the Emergency Management Director (in) preparing the Emergency Operations Plan, preparing and promoting ordinances when necessary, providing city resources to the Emergency Management Director in establishing and operating an Emergency Operations Center (and) providing consistent information and guidance to the public and directing people to the city website and other resources as needed.”
Those changes were presented Monday and met with criticism from Councilor Maureen Aucoin. She expressed distaste with the proposed amendments, saying that the March 23 emergency management plan “very intentionally shifts the decision-making authority back to the Council and establishes a team to guide the decision making process which includes all members of Council.” Aucoin said that established team has not met.
No action was taken at the Monday Zoom meeting of the City Council, but action on proposed amendments may come at a special meeting on April 21. City Solicitor Amy Tchao did not return requests for comment on Wednesday or Thursday.
City Manager Nate Rudy said that the city’s Emergency Operations team has met three times, at the last three Council meetings on March 23, March 30 and April 13. At those meetings, he said, the team reviewed the Emergency Operations Plan and gave updates on the city’s response.
Aucoin disagreed in a Wednesday email.
“On March 23rd, the Management Team was created by Council adoption of the Emergency Management Plan. It did not hold a meeting on that date,” she said. “While all team members were present for the March 30th special Council meeting, it wasn’t an Emergency Management Team meeting.”
Aucoin also said that she thought decision-making during the pandemic should be done by the City Council, though she believed giving the city manager authority over the short-term was reasonable and has not disagreed with any actions taken so far.
“(The amendments) would continue to give City Manager full freedom to draft official orders and expend funds as deemed necessary,” she said. “This is a long-term emergency and there are very impactful policy decisions affecting both businesses and residents deeply and I feel strongly that council … should be making those decisions … not a certain individual.”
When asked to respond to Aucoin’s comment, Rudy said he is performing the duties allotted him by the city’s ordinance. When asked how he determines fund expenditures, Rudy said he “will continue to work with our public safety department leads on their recommendations for expenditures to protect public health and safety in the Coronavirus response, and will continue to advise and discuss with Council as our response evolve.”
Dufour said the draft amendments would create a structure similar to the one present in Maine’s legislature. She said the state legislature provided Gov. Janet Mills and state agencies “with the tools and resources they needed to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic” before adjourning.
“I believe this model works and the amendment before the Council seeks to implement that process in Hallowell,” Dufour said, adding that it was “paramount” to address conflicts within city ordinances.
Aucoin also said the proposed Emergency Operation staff, which she said was comprised of “eight white men,” should reflect the diversity of the city and contain officials with specific experience, like medical professionals.
“You have effectively excluded all diversity from our emergency management team,” she said Monday. “To exclude the diversity on that team, disregards the values we in Hallowell continually underscore as a community.”
Councilor Michael Frett, who said he supported the amendments, said Monday that group was comprised of “the logical individuals.”
Lapointe said Wednesday that the city would want “skilled staff to be at the head of managing the COVID-19 emergency” and those officials would “pay attention to a host of issues, including diversity concerns.”
“The membership of the emergency team is based on the positions involved, consisting of professionals who are trained to respond, anticipate, and direct needed resources,” he said. “This is what you’d expect from leadership and citizens in Hallowell.”
Lapointe said the composition of the Emergency Operations staff should be nimble and timely, and the idea of a larger team without specialized skills doesn’t sound responsive or nimble.
“We’ve all been at Council meetings where simple issues require much time to resolve or finish the conversations,” he said. “This doesn’t seem like a template for an efficient response under the current emergency.”
Councilor Patrick Wynne said Thursday that “the lack of diversity on our emergency management team unintentionally creates a blind spot,” and thanked Aucoin for brining it up.
“It will be of utmost importance that the council and community help our dedicated and qualified emergency management team see what it inherently cannot,” he said.
Monday’s proposed amendments also requires 5 of 7 council votes to repeal the emergency order, but Circo, who said he supported the amendments, and Wynne said they believed it should only require 4 of 7 votes.
Councilor Diana Scully said Wednesday that she supported the ordinance amendments.
“It is clear to me that City Council is responsible and accountable for emergency actions and that the City Manager is acting pursuant to our decisions and with our oversight,” she said. “We are fortunate to have a most capable City Manager who is doing such an admirable job during this public health and economic crisis.”
Frett said Wednesday that he was “proud of the efforts our governing body, staff, and citizens have made, and continue to make, on behalf of all of Hallowell’s citizens and businesses.”
“The continued clear-headed planning, properly thought out actions and responses taken thus far, reassures me that together, Hallowell will find the light at the end of this tunnel,” he said.