Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
With the global coronavirus pandemic prompting government action at all levels, Albuquerque’s mayor will now have some new public health emergency powers.
The Albuquerque City Council voted 6-3 Monday to update a decades-old city ordinance that granted the mayor special authority in the event of a riot or natural disaster. The decision created a new – and distinct – emergency category for any infectious disease outbreak “that presents a threat to the health or safety of the residents.”
Upon declaring the newly defined “public health emergency,” the mayor could invoke specific powers like reallocating city resources to combat the epidemic and ordering the closure of streets, day cares and places of “mass assembly” like theaters and sports venues. The mayor could also require retailers to set limits on how many “medical, health and sanitation” products they sell to one person per day.
While the mayor can issue the proclamation, the City Council has the authority to amend, cancel or extend such an order – which the bill’s sponsor, Council President Pat Davis, called “some of the most robust check-and-balance structures in city law.”
Davis urged the council to take action Monday night despite reluctance from some councilors who called the bill flawed in its “overreach” or said they wanted more time to talk to their constituents.
Councilors noted that they were debating the issue in mostly empty chambers. Due to a current state restriction on large gatherings, meeting attendance was limited to councilors, staff members and credentialed media, though the council took public comment before the meeting through the Internet and other channels.
Councilor Diane Gibson asked to postpone a vote so there was more time to inform the public and, she said, clear up misconceptions. Several councilors referenced public concern that the bill would infringe on their Second Amendment rights. Language in the existing ordinance says the mayor can temporarily halt gun sales during something like a riot, but that does not apply to the public health emergency category and, Davis said, that old provision has probably been superseded and is worth revisiting at another time.
“This is a big step forward, and I do support this,” Gibson said. “However, I would feel better about this if we were better able to communicate what we’re doing here.”
But Davis and Sarita Nair, the city’s chief administrative officer, both stressed how quickly the epidemic had escalated.
“Two weeks ago, we were sitting here and the biggest problem was getting the Little League leases approved; now those Little Leagues aren’t even allowed to play because of how quickly this public health emergency has evolved,” Nair said.
Davis said the council could refine the bill later through amendments but some action was needed now.
“We’re on the upswing (of this epidemic). No one believes that tomorrow will be easier than today, and I think we ought to be in a place to give the administration and our community the tools we need to respond,” he said.
Councilor Isaac Benton introduced two successful amendments, one that changed what would have been a broad power to order retailers to limit how many products they sell to each person and inserted language that restricted that to medical, health and sanitation products.
He joined Gibson, Cynthia Borrego, Klarissa Peña and Lan Sena – newly appointed to succeed the late Ken Sanchez – voted to approve the bill.
Three councilors voted against it: Brook Bassan, Don Harris and Trudy Jones.
Bassan introduced 10 separate amendments intended to narrow the bill’s scope, but most of them failed or were withdrawn.
“Yes, infectious disease causes harm and, yes, we absolutely must take precautions,” Bassan said while reading a prepared statement before launching into her proposed amendments. “But at this moment in time residents in Albuquerque are being bombarded with the euphemism ‘abundance of caution,’ which is quickly becoming a metaphor for loss of freedom. We will survive the 2020 cold and flu season. I pray our civil liberties will as well.”
Some have criticized the city’s decision to hold the meeting without an ordinary public audience.
Terri O’Hare, a local advocate for the disabled community, said it essentially silenced community input.
“If public comments remain shut down to just emails/online forms/letters written to councilors, with the hope they get read and not shuffled to some folder, our city suffers,” she wrote in an email to the Journal. “Our civil rights suffer and the public’s right to transparent and active participation in government takes a big hit.”
But city attorney Esteban Aguilar Jr. said the council had acted legally and appropriately.
The Bernalillo County Commission is scheduled to hold a emergency meeting Tuesday to vote on declaring the county an emergency area and giving the county manager emergency powers similar to those at the city level.