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Emergency mayoral powers approved by Havre de Grace council; May 5 city election postponed

Campaign signs dot the landscape around Havre de Grace. The City Council voted on Monday to push back the election, which had been scheduled for May 5, to within 60 days of the governor lifting the state of emergency in place across Maryland.
Campaign signs dot the landscape around Havre de Grace. The City Council voted on Monday to push back the election, which had been scheduled for May 5, to within 60 days of the governor lifting the state of emergency in place across Maryland. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

Two charter amendments, one granting the Havre de Grace mayor “temporary emergency powers” during a state of emergency and the other postponing the May 5 city election, were adopted by the City Council last week.

The election scheduled for May 5, in which three of six seats on the council are contested, will happen within 60 days after the lifting of the state of emergency declared by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan in response to the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic. A new election date has not been determined yet, according to the city website.

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The council approved, unanimously, Charter Amendment Resolutions 286 and 287 during its meeting Monday evening, April 20. The former applied to mayoral powers and the latter to postponing the election.

The council meeting, described as a “virtual” meeting, was held in the council chambers in City Hall, with only the mayor, six council members and the city attorney in the chamber in compliance with state regulations limiting gatherings to 10 people to slow the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

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A camera operator also was present to record the proceedings, which were livestreamed via the city’s YouTube channel and Facebook page.

The mayor and council members each had a seat between them, in accordance with social distancing guidelines, and several council members wore face masks.

Mayor William T. Martin has already taken a number of executive actions in response to the pandemic, such as canceling the April 6 council meeting — the gathering April 20 was the council’s first formal session since its March 16 meeting.

The mayor also declared, via a March 31 executive order, a state of emergency for the city, taking measures to limit the spread of the virus in Havre de Grace such as prohibiting recreational boating, barring the use of playgrounds in city parks, restricting bar and restaurant service to carry-out, delivery and drive-through and issuing a 14-day self-quarantine requirement for people who are sick, know they have been exposed to people diagnosed with COVID-19 or have to traveled to Maryland from anywhere outside the state.

The first resolution approved places language in the city charters specifying the mayor’s powers during a state of emergency. Council President David Glenn noted that “the current charter is silent as to specific mayoral authority in times of emergency declaration.”

The charter amendment ensures “that everything we do from this office is actually explicit and not implied,” the mayor said.

Emergency powers

The temporary powers apply when a state of emergency has been declared at the federal, state, county or municipal level. The mayor can alter deadlines and timelines that pertain to city business once the mayor determines such action is needed to protect “the health, welfare or safety” of city residents and workers, plus the action “does not deprive any person of their due process rights.”

The amendment also gives the mayor the authority to regulate the use of city property for health and safety reasons, plus postpone a city election.

Resident Joe Kochenderfer, a former City Council member, recommended in a comment — submitted to city staff and read during the meeting — that language be added to the amendment stating that the mayor can take emergency action with the approval of at least five council members.

Glenn asked the city attorney to comment on Kochenderfer’s suggestion. City Attorney April Ishak said adding that language would be "a policy decision” that is up to the council. She noted the mayor’s emergency authority is temporary and ends within 30 days after a state of emergency ends, according to the charter amendment as written.

The council did not put in Kochenderfer’s recommendation. Councilwoman Carolyn Zinner stressed the “extraordinary circumstances” of the COVID-19 pandemic — which has claimed the lives of hundreds of Marylanders — and said the chief executives of Harford County’s three municipalities should have the “leeway” to make emergency decisions.

“I really do not believe we need a supermajority to put that into place and to make it a reality,” she said.

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Councilwoman Casi Boyer said the council can convene and reverse a decision by the mayor “if we so identify that what they’ve done is above and beyond what is reasonable.”

Councilman Jason Robertson stressed that the emergency powers are not “an end all, be all” for the mayor.

“I wouldn’t say that it’s a power grab by the executive — I never thought it was — but it is just something that you don’t want to take lightly,” he said.

Election postponed

The second resolution grants the mayor authority to suspend the May 5 election until the state of emergency ordered by the governor ends. The amendment gives the city the ability to waive requirements for a public hearing and 40-day waiting period giving citizens time to file a referendum that are in place if a city election is postponed, according to Ishak.

“It can become effective immediately upon adoption,” she said of the election suspension.

The ability to amend the city’s charter pertaining to elections comes after the governor issued an executive order allowing municipalities to make such amendments. Municipal officials statewide had expressed concerns about holding elections during the pandemic, according to Ishak.

“There was concern from various jurisdictions, throughout the state of Maryland, that their charters required elections during a time when the governor had issued stay-at-home orders and social distancing requirements,” she said.

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