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Anne Arundel councilman reintroduces bill that would end local state of emergency, strip Pittman of emergency powers

Councilman Nathan Volke, R-Pasadena, speaks to constituents in People's Park before a council meeting about a bill he's introduced which would terminate the state of civil emergency in the county. He introduced near-identical legislation in May, but it failed along party lines.
Councilman Nathan Volke, R-Pasadena, speaks to constituents in People's Park before a council meeting about a bill he's introduced which would terminate the state of civil emergency in the county. He introduced near-identical legislation in May, but it failed along party lines. (Olivia Sanchez)

The Anne Arundel County Council will debate terminating County Executive Steuart Pittman’s emergency powers Monday night, as an ordinance ending the local state of civil emergency will come before the body for the second time.

The success of this bill wouldn’t immediately reopen the entire county, but it would mostly align the county with the most liberal permissions from Gov. Larry Hogan, nullifying some of Pittman’s orders, but maintaining those directly from the Health Officer. It would not strip Pittman of his executive powers, only his emergency powers obtained through the state of civil emergency granted by the council when the pandemic began.

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The legislation is the second effort to shift the virus-related decision making power away from Pittman and toward the council. The first effort came in May, about two months after Pittman declared the civil emergency when the council’s three Republicans introduced emergency legislation that would have stripped him of his powers. The emergency legislation needed five votes to pass, but failed along party lines.

Councilman Nathan Volke, R-Pasadena, is the lone sponsor of this version of the bill. At a recent rally in People’s Park across from the Arundel Center, he spoke to about two dozen supporters about why he thinks the legislation is necessary.

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"We understood the reason we needed these (powers) in the beginning. We had never seen this before; we didn’t know what was going on,” Volke said. “It was fundamentally important that as things were changing day by day, even hour by hour, we had to have the flexibility to make edits to our rules and regulations on the fly.”

It’s unclear whether this version of the bill, nearly the exact same as the one introduced in May, will be able to earn the support it needs to pass. It does not have the support of Pittman’s administration, senior adviser and acting county budget officer Chris Trumbauer said.

If passed, Trumbauer said, facilitating the same communication level between Health Officer Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman with the seven-member council would be difficult and would add confusion to process.

“We certainly appreciate that the council or even individual members will not always agree with our decisions but we have tried to be inclusive, we take their calls, we take their emails,” Trumbauer said. “We would like the council to defeat this so we can concentrate on responding to the pandemic and not political maneuvering.”

Councilwoman Jessica Haire, R-Edgewater, and Councilwoman Amanda Fiedler, R-Arnold, both appeared with Volke at the small rally in People’s Park, advocating for small business owners and residents who are struggling during the pandemic. The two supported the previous attempt to end Pittman’s emergency powers.

As the decision making process for reopening and pandemic response has changed, Volke said the emergency powers aren’t needed anymore. He said the council could suspend the rules if they needed to vote on something urgently, and could even schedule emergency meetings to address virus-related policy.

Some of his colleagues disagree.

The bill would impact executive orders Pittman has made with these powers. Although the council could legislate to uphold some of the policies, they realistically wouldn’t be able to work quickly enough, said Council Chair Allison Pickard, D-Glen Burnie.

“This once-in-a-century public health crisis that is happening globally — it shouldn’t be a partisan debate,” she said. “To be honest, I feel like it’s political theater.”

Each time the governor makes a mid-week announcement, Pittman typically assembles his workgroup and makes an announcement about how the county will move forward within a few days. Many of the councilmembers have full-time jobs in addition to their government duties, and in general, Pickard said, “The legislative process just doesn’t move that fast.”

She noted that Kalyanaraman, who has been guiding the county’s pandemic response, has powers from one of Hogan’s orders, which would not be impacted by this legislation.

She won’t vote for the bill, and neither will Councilman Andrew Pruski, D-Gambrills, who is still recovering from his own battle with the coronavirus.

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Pruski is part of Pittman’s recovery workgroup and said that although he doesn’t necessarily agree with Pittman on everything, he doesn’t think his emergency powers should be stripped.

The council will soon be saddled with the General Development Plan, a 20-year vision of land use and development for the county.

Though he doesn’t necessarily think the state of civil emergency needs to stay in place until every resident is vaccinated, the county needs to maintain course through the winter and flu season at least, he said.

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