Civil Emergency Powers: Lessons Learned

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For months, the conversation regarding civil emergency powers granted to the county executive has been the focal point of heated discussion in both Anne Arundel County Council meetings and social media. There is confusion, anger, support, indifference, questions, and opposition. To understand why this is a topic of regular conversation, it may help to understand the history behind this section of county law, how often it has been used, and why. The details may surprise you.

In 1968, Bill 32-68 was introduced by the chairman of the county council on behalf of County Executive Joseph Alton Jr. According to meeting minutes, while the bill was introduced after riots related to the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, the legislation had been discussed previously for another unrelated reason. The county had lost a court case related to a snowstorm from 1966. During that storm, County Executive Alton declared a state of emergency. Legal action stemming from a car accident that took place during that state of emergency resulted in the judge’s findings that county law didn’t give a county executive that authority. Bill 32-68 passed unanimously and gave the authority to the county executive to issue a civil emergency for no more than seven days. A civil emergency longer than seven days would require a vote in favor by the county council.

Aside from a definition amendment in 2016, the civil emergencies section of our code has remained unchanged since 1968. Civil emergencies have been declared only a handful of times in the past 50 years, and all were related to weather events. None have ever gone beyond seven days — until March 2020. Knowing the historical background of this section of our code will help to understand its language.

A civil emergency is defined as “a riot or unlawful assembly characterized by the use of actual force or violence or any threat to use force without the authority of law; or a natural disaster or human-made calamity, earthquake, snowfall, or explosion, within the limits of the county; resulting in the death or injury of persons or the destruction of property so that extraordinary measures must be taken to protect the public health, safety and welfare.”

Once a civil emergency is declared, a county executive has many immediate actions at their disposal. For example, they may close any or all business establishments, regulate or prohibit the sale or consumption of alcoholic beverages, institute a curfew, prevent the sale of gasoline or any flammable liquid, prohibit the sale of firearms and close roads. They may also take “any other measures necessary for the protection of life and property.”

As most readers will remember, on March 5, 2020, Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic. At that time, little was known about the pandemic, how to treat it, who was most vulnerable, the rate of hospitalizations, and when or if a vaccine was possible. The state was making all of the decisions related to restrictions and closures in every jurisdiction.

On March 13, 2020, County Executive Steuart Pittman declared a civil emergency, authorized by bill 32-68. As required by law, Mr. Pittman returned to the council for approval of extending the civil emergency beyond seven days and to expire with the end of the state of emergency under the governor. My colleagues and I had many questions about this since the power had not been used by a previous county executive. The language of civil emergencies seemed dated, old-fashioned and not the intent under the present circumstances. It was unclear why the county would need to take any action at all due to the state’s actions and an anticipated “stay at home order.” The answer was simple: “essential government functions.”

Until March 2020, most Anne Arundel County employees did not have remote capabilities and virtual council meetings were not even a topic of conversation. We simply did not have the technology ready to carry on the jobs that serve the public. Departments that are required by law to respond to certain applications in a specific amount of time would be in violation of law. Legislation would lose important public hearing and amendment time before the 95-day expiration date. There was no mechanism to “pause” the timeclock according to the Office of Law, unless we had a civil emergency order in effect. The request to extend the civil emergency powers passed unanimously.

We are 10 months into COVID-19. Technology support has increased tremendously, enabling county government to function remotely. The executive and legislative branch have successfully resumed public hearings and votes for months. While there are still many unknowns about COVID-19, we are in a different position than March. A lot has been learned in the medical world, and in the balance of power between branches of government.

Improving the county code is one of my duties as your councilwoman. Most bills I have introduced have come from constituents like you. But in this circumstance, legislation will come from experience and lessons learned.

In February, the council will hear and vote on two pieces of legislation I have introduced that amend this dated section of our code. One bill would require that if a civil emergency is issued in conjunction with a state of emergency under the governor, and if the governor reduced restrictions related to the state of emergency, the county executive must get approval from the county council to be more restrictive than the governor’s actions. Jurisdictions cannot be less restrictive than the state.

The second bill would limit the length of a council-approved extended civil emergency to 45 days, at which time the county executive would have to declare a new civil emergency. This legislation, if passed, would fix an open-ended timeframe for the ending of civil emergencies that go beyond seven days. While it is highly unlikely this council will experience another pandemic in our term, there are many other scenarios in which a civil emergency can be declared. It is critical that we address the flaws in our laws for this council and for future leaders of our county.

As always, you can read more on these bills and other legislation by visiting our council website at www.aacounty.org/departments/county-council or contact me at amanda.fiedler@aacounty.org.

Happy new year!

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