In a time of crisis, the county manager has broad powers. But officials say most haven’t been used during COVID-19 pandemic.
In times of crisis, the Summit County manager and local health officer may, without oversight or authorization from publicly elected officials, take significant and powerful steps including imposing a curfew, rationing supplies, setting prices for items in high demand, shutting schools and businesses, suspending ordinances and controlling travel.
On March 12, County Manager Tom Fisher issued a declaration of local emergency and Health Director Rich Bullough issued a public health order declaring a local public health emergency. In the weeks since, they’ve enacted significant restrictions on businesses and individuals, most recently an order requiring people to stay at home except for essential trips.
Nonetheless, officials say most of the emergency powers remain unused and that community members and business owners are working within the county’s current restrictions, cognizant of the importance of the measures intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 and potentially save lives.
Summit County Attorney Margaret Olson said the sweeping powers are enshrined in law to protect the health, safety and welfare of county residents. As of Tuesday afternoon, there were 181 COVID-19 patients in the county, though health officials say there are likely many more unconfirmed cases.
“The purpose of the county’s response efforts are solely for the protection of the community,” Olson said. “We’re also required to construe all of these provisions and powers in the most narrowly tailored manner possible … to the objective of protecting public health.”
The Sheriff’s Office has not cited anyone for violating the three public health orders currently in place, Olson said, adding that they “would not do so, absent malicious or egregious circumstances.”
“The fact that we’ve had these orders under effect since March 15 with no criminal enforcement efforts says a lot about the intent of the county in this effort and, secondly, about the level of cooperation in the community that we simply have not had those problems and by and large have had cooperation and understanding from community members and business owners,” Olson said.
According to the Summit County Code, Fisher has several enumerated powers during a declared emergency, including rearranging the county’s budget and redirecting staff to work to mitigate the effects of a disaster. He is also required to “keep the county council and other elected officials of the county reasonably informed.”
The last item is a catch-all that broadly empowers the county manager to “perform and exercise such other functions, powers and duties as may be deemed necessary to promote and secure the safety and protection of the civilian population during a declared emergency.”
Fisher said Monday that he has not exercised most of the far-reaching powers under his authority, such as imposing a curfew, enacting price freezes or suspending ordinances.
The measure that is most outside normal operating procedure, he said, is the suspension of some rules regarding public competitive bidding for procuring supplies.
If the county had a need to buy surgical masks, for example, and had a source, some of the rules requiring how that purchase could be made have been suspended.
Fisher said he has not reallocated any money between funds, adding that three of the county’s accounts — the general, municipal and emergency funds — have been able to cover costs to date.
“Most of the expenses associated with this emergency so far have been staff-related, and so if somebody gets reallocated from doing a transportation planning job and is now working something with the emergency, their time was already covered,” Fisher said. “We are accounting for all that for reimbursement purposes at some point from the federal government.”
According to Matt Leavitt, the county’s finance officer, in early March the general fund had a balance of roughly $2.5 million, while the disaster fund had a balance of approximately $250,000. Other funds could be used to fund disaster-relief efforts, Leavitt said, but in some cases the emergency would have to apply to the specific fund.
Fisher and Olson discussed the changes made internally to deal with the emergency, like directing librarians to answer phones at the Emergency Operations Center and a prosecutor who is a native Spanish-speaker translating some documents.
“We’ve done an amazing job in the county of taking people and reassigning them according to their talents,” Olson said. “It really has been all hands on deck and all county employees working together just to get things done. It’s been really heartening and amazing to see the work like that. I’m proud of our county.”
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