Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bellingham City Council approved an ordinance to help the city respond to emergencies.
By Jordan Kiel
Bellingham City Council approved an emergency ordinance that modifies the “Emergency Services Council” chapter of the Bellingham Municipal Code.
At the city council meeting on Monday, March 23, the council voted unanimously to approve the ordinance, which aims to improve the city’s ability to respond to emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic by changing the procedural laws surrounding emergencies.
The ordinance changes who is included in the Emergency Services Council and their time restrictions for making decisions.
“The proposed changes will allow us to be more responsive to emergency needs while retaining important checks and balances in place through council oversight of mayoral actions,” Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood said in a press release.
Before the ordinance, the Emergency Services Council consisted of the mayor, the director of emergency services and the entire city council. During an emergency, the council meets every 48 hours to determine the effectiveness of their actions in a changing situation and within 24 hours to confirm an emergency order made by the mayor.
Under the emergency ordinance, the council consists of only the mayor, the director of emergency services and the city council president. The ordinance also requires the city council to confirm all emergency orders that have the force of law.
The ordinance also states that if the mayor determines that the emergency or disaster will require emergency measures for longer than a week, the 48-hour time period to review actions may be extended.
“This ordinance is being introduced at this time because under the current crisis and past emergencies, it is very difficult to meet the timeline for confirmation of emergency orders,” City Attorney Peter Ruffatto said.
Emergency orders issued by the mayor that carry force of law and are related to the protection of life and property must be confirmed by the city council at the earliest practicable time. These mayoral orders are confirmed with an emergency ordinance.
“This ordinance does not add any emergency powers to the City of Bellingham or the mayor; this ordinance does not execute or implement any emergency orders,” Ruffatto said. “It’s entirely procedural.”
The updated Bellingham Municipal Code includes a list of example orders the mayor could issue in an emergency or disaster. The list includes an order suspending regulations and allowing for the temporary siting and operation of essential facilities.
A different emergency ordinance was approved by the city council allowing the mayor to authorize public facilities to be used without normal permit review to provide shelter or other essential services. Temporary shelter sites for homeless people during an emergency or disaster would be more easily accessible. The ordinance confirmed an executive order by the mayor.
Ruffatto said the ordinance was mostly related to the Lighthouse Mission drop-in center temporarily relocating to Bellingham High School in order to improve social distancing.
“There could be other situations that call for this, and it’s basically allowing us to not necessarily go through some of the procedural requirements having to do with zoning so that those essential facilities and those essential operations can occur,” Ruffatto said during the city council meeting.
The city council meeting was held in person and followed the CDC social distancing guidelines. People are asked to engage with the counsel via email, letter or telephone. City council meetings can be watched live online.
Prior to the meeting, a rumor was spreading on social media and gun advocacy websites such as ammoland.com that the city council was considering a prohibition on gun and ammunition sales.
“We are committed to keeping our residents, councilmembers and staff safe,” Mayor Fleetwood said in a press release. “False rumors circulating on social media that claim the mayor and council are proposing to ban guns are completely untrue.”
The Bellingham Municipal Code already allowed the mayor to issue an emergency order requiring the discontinuance of the sale, distribution or giving away of firearms and ammunition in any or all parts of the city. However, no changes to firearm laws or gun control were made at the city council meeting.