Minnetrista lifted its city-wide emergency order Aug. 17 after council members determined that the order has had no real effect on city business over the past five months or on its positioning to receive federal COVID reimbursement dollars; one council member further alluded to the sour taste that continued instatement of the order could leave in the mouths of some residents.
“An emergency order was never meant to be an indefinite thing […] the fact that this order has been in place for five months without any—not a single one—of its measures being used, makes it clear this order isn’t necessary and should be terminated,” said council member Shannon Bruce.
Minnetrista has had an emergency order in place since March 23, just over a week after Gov. Tim Walz had declared a peacetime emergency for the state of Minnesota and began issuing a series of executive orders shutting down schools, restaurants and fitness centers to limit the spread of coronavirus.
“It breeds contempt for policy makers and our local government,” said Bruce of continuing the city’s state of emergency. “Emergency orders were never designed to be invoked, or to be continued for that matter, for the uncertainty of the future or because we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. If that were the case, we’d be under perpetual emergency orders until the end of time.”
Council members Pam Mortenson and Mike Molitor also took issue with the open end date for the order. Mortenson indicated that she saw little reason to have such an order in place now that federal relief funds have been guaranteed regardless such a declaration, while Molitor commented that the city has handled its emergency declaration well and that his vote to terminate the order was not a reflection on city staff.
The League of Minnesota Cities had in March recommended that municipalities pass their own local-level emergency orders in large part because it was not certain then if federal relief money would be contingent on having such an order in place. The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed by President Donald Trump March 27, disbursed $150 billion in federal funds to states to then allocate to their local governments. The $841 million of its own portion that Minnesota ended up setting aside for city and county governments, was not tied to any emergency order requirement and was released at the end of June.
Council’s 5-0 decision Aug. 17 to terminate the city’s emergency order runs counter to staff recommendation as advocated by both the city’s public safety director and the city attorney.
Minnetrista Police Chief Paul Falls noted the “unprecedented” nature of the coronavirus pandemic and commented that, from a public safety perspective, the reason for the emergency order has been to allow for “swift action” if needed.
“Fortunately, as staff does take this very seriously, we have not had to do that,” he said. Falls, who had earlier in the evening commented that his own job has “changed 180 degrees” since the onset of the pandemic, said the main stress point for his department now is staffing and with that, the potential overtime costs associated with an illness that could spread rapidly among officers.
“While I understand all of our concerns—I have the same concerns—I can tell you that all of the law enforcement agencies that are partners within the Lake Area Emergency Management Group are still under the emergency orders. The reason they’re doing that is it puts them in the best position to be able to respond to an emergency,” said Falls.
Likewise, Ron Beatty, city attorney for Minnetrista, referred to the emergency order as “an insurance policy.”
“If we never use it that’s fine, but it’s there in case we do need it,” he said. “I see no tangible harm with keeping it in place, but ultimately it’s a decision that the council has to make.”
Uncertain on whether a formal resolution was needed to terminate the emergency order, council opted to have one drawn up and included in the consent agenda for the Sept. 8 session; the resolution will be retroactive to the evening of Aug. 17.