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ACLU: City’s emergency law may be ‘overreach’

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union says Albuquerque’s newly approved emergency powers ordinance may be an “overreach.”

In a statement Tuesday, the ACLU of New Mexico said legislation the Albuquerque City Council passed Monday night is too vague, particularly in defining a “public health emergency” and a “reasonable threat,” which the organization said could allow the mayor to invoke “sweeping powers to shut down businesses and ban people from public spaces in response, for example, to a common flu outbreak.” It also raised concern with the extent of the mayor’s new powers.

Against the backdrop of the global coronavirus pandemic, the council approved the ordinance 6-3 after hours of discussion and debate.

The vote served to update a decades-old ordinance that allows the mayor to proclaim a civil emergency in the face of riots, natural disasters and other challenges.

The council’s vote added a separate category for a “public health emergency” with distinct powers. Upon proclaiming a public health emergency, the mayor now has authority to order the closure of streets, day care centers and places of “mass assembly,” such as theaters and sports stadiums. He could also order retailers to limit how many medical, health and sanitation items they sell to each person per day, which councilors who voted for the bill said was an attempt to stop people from hoarding basic supplies.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Tim Keller had not issued a public health emergency proclamation.

The ACLU’s statement said that the COVID-19 pandemic has created “very real fear” and that elected officials must take certain actions to protect the community.

“While the emergency powers legislation approved last night by the Albuquerque City Council is an understandable reaction to the mounting disease threat, we fear the Council overreached,” it said.

Council President Pat Davis, who introduced the legislation, said that it is impossible to “write every conceivable outbreak or emergency into law” and that the ordinance is necessary for instances that are now unimaginable.

“Every emergency is different and will take varying degrees of these tools to respond,” Davis said in a statement to the Journal. “In times like this, it is not helpful to ‘what if’ to the worst degree.”

He added that the ordinance gives the City Council the authority to change or cancel any mayoral proclamation it deems problematic.

But Councilor Brook Bassan, who repeatedly expressed concerns about the bill’s scope before voting against it Monday, said she agreed with the ACLU’s position.

“During this unprecedented time in Albuquerque, we must be extremely cautious and use common sense practices,” she said in a statement. “Our city must make choices that will protect us all both physically and in regard to our civil liberties.”

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