By Heather Graves
GREEN BAY – It was tense inside the city council chambers Tuesday, March 17, during an emergency meeting where alders approved the city’s state of emergency proclamation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The decision didn’t come easy, and the vote wasn’t unanimous.
District 8 Alder Chris Wery voted against the motion following comments he made about not being comfortable with what he saw as relinquishing council’s decision-making powers.
The proclamation highlights the power of the mayor and his administration to make “all further actions reasonable and necessary to prevent exposure to and/or spread of COVID-19.”
Alders raised concerns about decisions being made without consulting the council first.
“The point is that some decisions are being made that perhaps we aren’t well-informed about, or perhaps wouldn’t take,” said District 12 Alder Jesse Brunette. “So, when we get the calls and comments and criticisms on social media, we want to be able to say it’s a decision that we understood how it was reached.”
This branched off into a decision regarding the recent shutdown of the Green Bay Metro Transit System.
A handful of alders expressed their frustration with their lack of knowledge and participation in the decision.
“The issue with the transit was that it was a decision that was reached and it was posted on your (Mayor Eric Genrich’s) Facebook page – that’s how I learned about it,” Burnette said. “The public had a different response to that decision. They feel they were not publicly notified. I feel, as an alder, they we’re not publicly notified. If we approve this as written, we are basically be ceding our input as a council to you (Genrich).”
Genrich said he consulted with Transit Director Patricia Kiewiz, and endorsed her decision for the shutdown, but it wasn’t a decision he made, rather a decision made by Kiewiz and the Transit Authority.
“I didn’t make the decision,” Genrich said. “I don’t have the authority to make that decision and I did not make it. I don’t know how many times I need to say that.”
When asked whether he would be consulting with alders as he makes decisions going forward during the crisis, Genrich said public safety as his main concern and focus.
“I will be informing council as much as absolutely possible in these decisions,” he said. “We are getting very far-fielded of this declaration, but I think it’s important to reiterate what Attorney Vanessa Chavez said, which is there are executive responsibilities, and there are council responsibilities. Council is the policy-making body for the City of Green Bay, and that is something that I absolutely respect 110 percent. But I have the obligation to act as an executive and make decisions, many, many decisions every single day. And I can’t be consulting with every member of council before I act on something.”
District 4 Alder Bill Galvin said the council needs to be cognitive that things are not normal.
“We don’t have the right to be making decisions on things we don’t have the right to be making decisions about,” he said. “There are probably going to be other items coming up that we are probably going to have questions about that in the past we would probably talk about back and forth amongst each other. But we don’t necessary have those rights, we never did.”
In-person meetings suspended
The meeting was a partial vision of what is to come with some alders physically present while others in attendance remotely.
The proclamation suspends all in-person meetings involving staff, employees and/or elected officials until at least April 17. This includes council, committees, commissions and boards.
All meetings, however, may be conducted remotely, with public access granted as possible.
District 9 Alder Brian Johnson proposed an amendment to exclude elected officials from the in-person meeting suspension.
He said he didn’t want to tie the hands of council if the need for an in-person meeting arose.
Others opposed the amendment saying council needed to lead by example.
“We can still do our job,” said District 7 Alder Randy Scannell. “I think it’s important that we model, that we accept that the CDC said do not meet in large groups, and we are going to follow that. We should make that a public statement. It’s an emergency situation, and we are taking emergency action.”
The amendment failed in a 7-4 vote.
COVID-19 update in Green Bay
As of March 17, Brown County didn’t have a confirmed case of COVID-19.
But as the total in the state begins to rise, Green Bay Fire Chief David Litton said that could change quickly – especially with local hospitals operating at near capacity already.
“We are at the tip of the tip of the tip of the iceberg right now,” Litton said.
He said hospitals are already making contingency plans when/if the virus affects Green Bay, including early discharges for minor issues that can be managed at home, canceling non-emergency surgeries and procedures, “up to putting people in the hallways.”
As a precaution, Litton said if patients present symptoms of COVID-19, but their circumstances are not life-threatening, paramedics will not be transporting them to the hospital.
He said because of the time and effort it takes to disinfect ambulances, equipment and hospital rooms, and the risk to emergency and hospital staff, patients will just be told to go home and self-quarantine.
As of March 17, he said there were 14 emergency responders under quarantine. All traveled to areas with confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Litton said none had known contact with anyone locally experiencing symptoms, and none are currently exhibiting any symptoms.
He said everyone is doing everything they can to prepare, but the department, health officials and city staff are planning for things to get worse.
As the provider for public health for the city, Genrich said in this situation the Brown County Health Department is “really the drive of this train.”
“They are the primary mover,” he said. “They are the most experienced in this area, and so as a result they have the highest responsibility.”
Genrich said he knows there are opinions saying the measures being taken seem like an overreaction.
“This is a very serious illness,” he said. “It is spreading very rapidly. It’s incumbent upon us, I feel, as leaders to model what is appropriate behavior. That’s why I’ve taken such dramatic steps to limit public gatherings. Often times it’s too late in these kinds of situations. We need to act while it feels too early. And that’s what I’ve tried to model. It feels like an overreaction, I understand that. But the overreaction is necessary now.”
April 7 elections
At Tuesday night’s meeting, and later on Twitter, Genrich expressed his concerns regarding the spring election.
With the closure of all in-person public visits to city hall and the local, state and national calls for social-distancing, Genrich said the city isn’t “able to administer a normal election.”
He told alders Tuesday night he continues to advocate privately and publicly for dramatic changes in the way the April 7 election will be administrated.
“As it stands, I don’t believe we will be able to staff it appropriately, and I worry about the impact this will have on our democracy,” he said.
Genrich said he is exploring any and all options to remedy the situation.
As of now, Wednesday, March 18, is the last day to request an absentee ballot by mail or online.
On Twitter, Genrich called on the governor and the State Legislature to “act fast to allow us to have the election in a safe and responsible way: through the mail.