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Council shelves 'misinformed' proposal to end Lincoln's pandemic emergency
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Council shelves 'misinformed' proposal to end Lincoln's pandemic emergency

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The Lincoln City Council narrowly agreed Monday to shelve a proposal that would have ended the city's emergency declaration for the coronavirus pandemic. 

Councilman Roy Christensen had proposed the resolution to end the ongoing, March 16, 2020, declaration that extends emergency powers to Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird. 

He wanted to pull back council authority and, at a minimum, hold a public discussion about how the city has exercised its emergency powers. 

Gaylor Baird has used the emergency powers to acquire personal protective equipment and seek reimbursement for public safety spending related to the pandemic, according to Mayoral Chief of Staff Jennifer Brinkman. 

The emergency powers granted the mayor have not been the legal mechanism for the city's public health directives such as the mask mandate or restrictions on business operations, she said.

Instead, the Lincoln-Lancaster County health director has special authority to implement stricter rules than the state since the county's health department was established in 1889, decades earlier than the statewide creation of county health departments.

On Monday, four council members called Christensen's proposal a misinformed and divisive action that potentially jeopardized the city's ability to secure federal emergency relief funding needed in its ongoing response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

"I don’t think our residents can afford to support his action," said Councilwoman Sändra Washington, who along with council members Jane Raybould, James Michael Bowers and Tammy Ward voted to delay the proposal indefinitely. Councilmen Richard Meginnis and Bennie Shobe joined Christensen in opposing the indefinite delay.

Formally introduced Monday, the resolution would have been set for a public hearing and vote at the council's next meeting, Jan. 25. 

Christensen had cited the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine as a time for the city to take a new course in its response, one involving more council input in the local response to the pandemic like what he has seen in Omaha. 

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But Raybould said this was not the appropriate time to end the emergency declaration given the coronavirus remains a problem locally and the U.S. last week set a single-day record for the highest number of deaths. 

The potential for such a vote ramps up tensions in the community, Raybould said. 

She proposed the delay until such time the city returns to a semblance of normalcy and doing so is supported by data and science.  

"Real leadership means you do your homework," Raybould said 

Christensen said he planned to introduce a measure that would have implemented an emergency declaration for periods of 60 or 90 days to allow the council to regularly review the special powers. 

"I think that having no public hearing where the public can participate is a disservice and a lack of transparency," Christensen responded. 

Meginnis and Shobe each said they were not ready for the council to end the emergency, but they saw benefits to conducting a public hearing on the proposal. 

"At this point, I wasn’t ready to end the emergency, but I was ready to have the discussion," Meginnis said. 

Shobe said a hearing would have afforded the city an opportunity to explain to the public how the city has used its powers. 

But Ward disagreed, saying the council needed to reject boldly and swiftly the ill-timed measure and any notions that the council has not been doing its job. 

"We must stay united and not be divided by this resolution," Ward said. "We cannot afford to do otherwise, especially after a year like last year and especially after a week like last week."

Reach the writer at 402-473-2657 or rjohnson@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.

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