Discussions regarding coronavirus consumed a lengthy Wauseon City Council meeting held Monday, as Council members worked to conform new city policy to the pandemic’s ever-evolving landscape and supported an emergency proclamation to be issued by Mayor Kathy Huner.
The meeting itself took a cue from suggestions by state health officials that citizens distance themselves from each other at a six-foot length. Council members spread throughout available seating in their chambers, with some taking spaces normally occupied by visitors.
Doors to the city municipal building at 240 Clinton St. that houses the second floor chambers have been locked to the public to discourage the spread of coronavirus, but were opened briefly to allow access to the Council meeting.
The meeting began with a Tree Commission report by Councilor Patrick Griggs. He said a plan for commission members to visit Bowling Green in preparation of Wauseon hosting the 2021 Tree City USA gathering was delayed.
Council approved two $65 plaques ordered to honor Kim Bowles and the late Walter Lange for their past service to the Tree Commission.
But attention quickly turned to coronavirus, as Fire Chief Rick Sluder provided Council members with the layout of an incident command the department is required to operate within during a national incident. The layout described which city officials are responsible for specific areas of the incident command system, such as operations, logistics, and planning. It also offered a description of the system the city would use, and its primary objectives.
“This is just a documentation of how duties are divided up within the city, until the emergency is declared over with,” Sluder said.
He said the city officials meet once or more daily in order to readjust the organizational plan if necessary.
Law Director Tom McWatters III said he met Monday with the mayor, city department heads, city human resources representative Sarah Wheeler, and Council President Shane Chamberlin to discuss the city’s plans for establishing coronavirus policy.
Huner said a decision was made at the meeting to lock out the public from the city municipal building for the safety of its employees. She said the lockout does not mean the city has ceased operations.
“We locked the building; we are not closed. We’re still functioning by phone and by email,” she said. Huner said residents who need to have discussions with city departments or to pay fines may be admitted to conduct their business through safety windows. Water bills and tax forms can be left in the building’s exterior drop box.
Huner said a list of telephone numbers for all city departments has been affixed to a front window of the building.
“From what I’m understanding, this is what a lot of the other (municipalities) are starting to do,” she said.
She also said Public Works employees will divide their shifts to prevent the close proximity that is typical during their duties and that could contribute to spreading coronavirus.
“They’re tight – they’re together,” Huner said of their working conditions.
She said the city would also like to look into its employees telecommunicating when their positions permit. “If we can utilize our employees to do more work at home…that’s something we would like to (try),” Huner said. “But keeping the (building’s) doors closed – that is going to keep the public from coming in. Just trying to keep them safe.”
Council members passed a motion to support a city proclamation of emergency, which Huner suggested in order to follow the ever-changing Ohio mandates regarding coronavirus. She said the city’s code permits the proclamation, which allows adopting state emergency changes without having to issue new city legislation each time the state makes adjustments.
“They’re changing the rules daily,” she said of Ohio’s coronavirus protocol. “If we had to change each legislation to go toward what they’re mandating we might as well just get our sleeping bags and stay up here. Everything’s going to have to be under emergency change.”
Huner said if a city department develops a crisis situation during an emergency, “do we wait and give 24-hour notice, and call in Council and make this decision, or do we make this administrative decision according to this emergency situation? Because that’s what we’re in. We’re in a state of emergency.”
McWatters said the proclamation could declare a general state of emergency, which gives the mayor room to implement only those elements of an emergency proclamation that are helpful in the matter of coronavirus.
Council President Shane Chamberlin said the city code under which emergency proclamation powers are possible “gives the mayor some flexibility going forward. It doesn’t say that we’re going to do anything different than the state or the federal government, it just gives her some authority that she doesn’t normally have…This is simply a motion City Council can author showing our support for the mayor in considering declaring an emergency within the City of Wauseon.”
Huner issued the proclamation on Tuesday.
The mayor then yielded the floor to city Human Resources representative Sarah Wheeler to discuss procedures to protect city employees from coronavirus. “Protecting our employees is one of my main goals, so this policy that we put together today does do that,” she said.
Among recommended travel policies and procedures is two weeks of self-quarantine for city employees who have traveled more than 100 miles from Wauseon beyond state lines or to highly-infected areas after March 11. Wheeler said that duration was chosen because it’s the maximum amount of time during which people exposed to coronavirus will show symptoms.
She said employees who must self-quarantine can work from home if their position permits; otherwise, they may use approved sick time. If an employee can test negative for coronavirus during their quarantined time they may return to work.
Following a protracted discussion of the pros and cons, Council passed a motion to accept the travel policy and procedure.
McWatters questioned whether Council should discontinue meeting for an undetermined time during the coronavirus pandemic. Or, he said, City Council could close off meetings to the public but still comply with open meeting laws by live-streaming the meetings online.
McWatters said discussions with other municipalities show “it’s business as usual in terms of continuing to hold meetings, and they’re just trying to figure out how to do that.”
Following discussion, the council voted to cancel the April 2 Committee of the Whole meeting and the April 6 City Council meeting, resuming with the second monthly Council meeting scheduled for April 20. Huner said waiting to meet again until the third Monday in April will give Council time to watch the progress of the pandemic and determine the next course of action.
In other business, the mayor presented the city’s voluminous 2019 year-end report, offered a sampling of statistics from it: a decrease in police calls; major crimes decreased by 2%; income tax revenue declined for the year; 14 zoning permits were issued; 24 residential housing units were constructed; and the city fire department responded to 1,877 emergency medical services.
Police Chief Kevin Chittenden reported that part-time officer Chad Randall resigned March 21 to accept a full-time position with the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office.
And Council members approved the second reading of an ordinance amending the city’s water rate schedule, effective June 1.
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.