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Anne Arundel Council rejects bill removing county executive’s emergency powers in party line vote

County Executive Steuart Pittman’s emergency powers remain — a legislative effort to terminate the order and revoke emergency powers failed along party lines Monday night following a lengthy debate.

The bill drew 433 submissions of written testimony, many from supporting residents. Fourteen residents signed up to testify online, but by 10:55 p.m. when the council opened the public hearing on the bill, some of the registrants had left.

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Rosa Gargano, a county resident who said she owns a business, decried the coronavirus restrictions and the way they’ve impacted the community.

“We’re treated like we lack common sense, and we need you to direct us in the right direction. The direction that is being led is killing our small businesses, some of which of us have taken our life savings and put into fulfilling our dreams,” she said. “I’m asking you to have faith in us, believe in us, trust us. After all, we had the intelligence to vote and elect you as our officials.”

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The bill failed along a party line vote, 4-3.

Even if it passed, the bill would not have immediately reopened the entire county, or even have shifted everything back to pre-virus conditions, said sponsoring Councilman Nathan Volke, R-Pasadena. Instead, it would have aligned the county with the most liberal reopening permissions from Gov. Larry Hogan and give the council a more active role in the reopening process. Though the county executive wouldn’t have the same level of power in this regard, the health officer still has powers through a Hogan executive order, and his mandates would stand. Pittman and Health Officer Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman have worked closely throughout the pandemic. The two serve together on the recovery advisory group, which meets bi-weekly.

Though many of the residents who gave live testimony during the meeting supported the legislation, at least two urged the council to reject it. Among them, Alderman Brooks Schandelmeier, D-Ward 5, and Annapolis resident John Kontor, who said he was an internal medicine physician and healthcare executive.

He said efforts to prioritize the economy over public health would backfire, and asked the council to leave the management of the disease to the public health experts.

Volke has been a vocal critic of Pittman’s handling of the pandemic, frequently criticizing his reopening approach and making legislative efforts to shift the decision making power. The sponsor of many related resolutions over the past seven months, Volke also introduced near-identical legislation in May, about two months after the state of emergency took effect.

Monday night, he kicked off his pitch with an almost 20-minute PowerPoint presentation and speech about the bill, reopening and how state leadership compares with county leadership. His Democratic colleagues and administration officials admonished the speech, calling it overly political.

“I think the administration came to this public hearing to speak about public health, and it seems the sponsor would prefer to talk about politics,” said Chris Trumbauer, senior adviser to Pittman. “I almost think something like that should have an authority line at the end of it.”

Council Vice-Chair Sarah Lacey, D-Jessup, questioned whether Volke had created the presentation of his own, at one point even asking him to send her the original PowerPoint file so she could check the metadata. Volke declined to provide the file to Lacey. She criticized him for not sending the 24-slide deck to the other councilmembers before the meeting, calling it “inconsiderate and rude."

Before the legislation debate, the council received a presentation from Kalyanaraman focused on the way the county’s normal programs and services had been impacted by the virus, and how they are operating now. In early March, the Anne Arundel County Department of Health mobilized to call the close contacts of residents who’d fallen ill to the coronavirus, testing residents who thought they might have caught it, and putting at-risk residents up in motels when necessary.

Over the past seven months, the Department has built up the COVID-19 response pillars significantly while also adapting other services Kalyanaraman said. The council heard a presentation from the health department early in Monday’s meeting but planned to discuss and vote on legislation, including a bill removing County Executive Steuart Pittman’s emergency powers.

In his presentation to the council, Kalyanaraman stated the coronavirus had become the fourth-leading cause of death for county residents, killing at least 251 people as of Monday. He also gave the council a breakdown of how the health department has adapted to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and the effect it had on services. Both food assistance and case management were under increased demand, the health officer said.

The council also approved legislation related to cottage food businesses or businesses where residents sell food they’ve cooked in their home kitchens; a bill related to the licensing and registration of unattended boxes; a bill that reduces the distance an indoor rifle, pistol, skeet or archery range must be from a residential district; and two bills related to public works, water and wastewater systems. A bill related to agritourism was amended and will be heard again at the Nov. 2 meeting.

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They unanimously passed a resolution sponsored by Councilwoman Lisa Brannigan Rodvien, D-Annapolis, that declares Nov. 1 to be Maryland Emancipation Day, in recognition of the role Maryland played in the ending of slavery.

The council also approved a resolution authorizing a grant for a paralegal for the county drug court program; a resolution approving the determination of a piece of unused county-owned land on Bestgate Road in Annapolis; and a resolution that authorizes the application for sale of a 67.5-acre swath of land in Davidsonville by Eleanor R. King to the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation.

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