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Councilman wants to end Lincoln mayor's pandemic emergency powers
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Councilman wants to end Lincoln mayor's pandemic emergency powers

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Lincoln City Councilman Roy Christensen wants the city to end its emergency declaration and pull back the special authority it extended 10 months ago to Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird to deal with the pandemic. 

The council should reassert itself in the city's emergency decision-making process now that the pandemic has reached the vaccine stage, he said. 

"If the mayor wants to continue imposing mandates or restrictions, she should ask the City Council for the authority to do so," Christensen said. "I will listen to any such request and decide whether such measures are warranted."

Gaylor Baird declared the pandemic an emergency March 16, four days before the city confirmed its first coronavirus case. Her decision, which the City Council ratified, followed emergency declarations by both the state and federal governments. Its aim was to make available potential federal and state reimbursement for crisis-related city expenses and to access the city's emergency reserve funds if necessary, officials said.

Roy Christensen

Councilman Roy Christensen speaks at a council meeting at City Hall in 2019.

Christensen's resolution will be formally introduced at Monday's council meeting and is scheduled for a public hearing and a vote Jan. 25. The declaration would end Jan. 31 if passed.

The resolution likely will meet skepticism from Christensen's fellow council members, many of whom have supported the handling of the local response by Gaylor Baird and the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department.  

Mayoral Chief of Staff Jennifer Brinkman said ending the emergency wouldn't change the way pandemic restrictions are decided but could hamstring the city's ability to get federal and state disaster aid.

Jennifer Brinkman

Brinkman

"This (resolution) doesn’t accomplish what the councilman said is his objective," Brinkman said. "In reality, the mayor has not exercised emergency powers." 

Directed health measures cite the emergency declaration as a reason why coronavirus-related mandates and restrictions are needed, but Health Director Pat Lopez's legal authority to implement coronavirus restrictions, such as the mask mandate or early closing hours for bars, does not stem from the city's emergency declaration, Brinkman said. 

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Rather, it results from the health director's legal power to control disease outbreaks, Brinkman said. 

The Lincoln-Lancaster County health director's special authority to implement stricter rules than the state stems from Lincoln's establishment of a health department in 1889, decades earlier than the statewide creation of county health departments. 

Gaylor Baird has not used her emergency powers to enact any restrictions, she said. 

By contrast, during the riots last summer, Gaylor Baird implemented a nightly curfew during the city's declared emergency. 

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The pandemic emergency powers have given the city flexibility to buy and fund emergency needs like when it raced to buy personal protective equipment early in the pandemic knowing other municipalities across the country were doing the same. 

Lincoln's declaration has helped it receive $10 million in funds for public safety expenditures, and the city is set to receive another $9 million, Brinkman said. 

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Lancaster County Emergency Manager Jim Davidsaver said the city's emergency declaration expresses to disaster aid officials at the state and federal level that Lincoln still has conditions constituting a disaster beyond its abilities to handle. 

Removing the declaration would bump Lincoln down the list when pandemic resources or funds are distributed

Jim Davidsaver

Davidsaver

"If you don’t have a disaster declaration, essentially you’re not asking for help from the state or federal level," Davidsaver said. 

Christensen said his proposal comes in part to generate public discussion about the emergency powers the council ceded to the mayor in March. 

Christensen, a Republican who intends to run for reelection this spring, said he had thought about raising the issue in August but then he opted to wait because of the effort to recall the mayor and some council members. He was not targeted in the effort. 

"I did not want anybody to misinterpret my motivations," he said.

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The Omaha City Council, which implemented the city's mask mandate after Lincoln, has been more transparent in policymaking and accountable to the public, Christensen said. 

"Mostly this has to do with the council being accountable to the public and transparent about what we’re doing as a community," Christensen said. "An open discussion is always useful in a democracy." 

But Brinkman disputed his contention that the public hasn't been involved in policymaking, saying people have had the ability to testify before the council about their concerns and nearly every City Council meeting has been preceded by a briefing from Lopez whom council members could question. 

Health Department officials have had weekly conversations with affected businesses and other key stakeholders and groups about policies, precautions and pandemic concerns since the virus arrived, she said. 

She's confident the Health Department staff can evaluate and respond to the changing dynamics of the pandemic, and she said collaboration remains a key priority for health officials whose response can only prove effective if the community adheres to the guidelines and directives they implement. 

"We have to be united in our response to the pandemic in order to be successful," Brinkman said.

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

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.

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