Ketchikan’s City Council extended its pandemic emergency declaration through the end of July at its last meeting. But city officials say it’s less about the city’s response to COVID-19, and more about where the council can meet.
The emergency ordinance first passed in March 2020 does several things. For one, it eases purchasing rules and allows the city manager to close public facilities during a COVID surge.
It also suspends some requirements about where the council can have its meetings. City code currently requires the council to hold its regular twice-monthly meetings in the council chambers in Ketchikan City Hall.
Of course, the council hasn’t actually met in City Hall since the start of the pandemic. Each in-person meeting has been held in the spacious Ted Ferry Civic Center, where the public and city officials could space themselves at least six feet apart to prevent spreading COVID-19.
City Attorney Mitch Seaver told the council that extending the emergency order for another month would allow the council to stay in the Ted Ferry through next month.
“There’s a number of people that haven’t had a fair opportunity to be vaccinated, and it would allow us the flexibility to meet in a larger setting for the next two meetings,” he said.
Why just for the next two meetings? After that, another new ordinance passed unanimously on Thursday would allow the council to meet wherever it would like, within reason, the attorney said.
But because that ordinance doesn’t take effect until after the two July meetings, the council would have had no choice but to return to the chambers next week if the declaration wasn’t extended. And that would mean the council chambers would have to be ready July 1. (Emergency ordinances, including the pandemic emergency declaration, take effect immediately.)
Council Member Mark Flora voted with the necessary five-member supermajority to extend the emergency ordinance through August 1.
“Would it in any way impact anybody’s lifestyle, civil liberties, freedom of movement or any other activity? And please correct me if I’m wrong — the answer is no,” Flora said.
There was some discussion about an added cost of moving back to the council chambers early. But the city clerk’s office clarified in a phone call with KRBD that the timing of the council’s move back to the chambers would likely not affect the cost.
Council Member Riley Gass voted against the extension. He pointed out that Ketchikan’s pandemic numbers are looking much better than in recent months, with few cases and increasing vaccinations.
“What I’m hearing is, ‘Yeah, it’s not an emergency, but it would make things a lot easier if we just pass this emergency ordinance.’ So I don’t think it’s correct to pass an emergency ordinance when we don’t, in my opinion, we don’t have an emergency right now,” Gass said.
Council Member Abby Bradberry joined Gass in voting no, saying she didn’t see the need for an extension. She pointed out that the Ketchikan Emergency Operations Center can run with or without a declaration in place.
As it stands, the clerk’s office says there isn’t a firm timeline on when the council will return to the chambers in City Hall.