The Emporia City Commission narrowly approved an ordinance establishing a new offense in the city code related to the violation of public health orders during a Wednesday afternoon action session.
The ordinance — “Violating a Public Health Order” — makes it unlawful to disobey an order imposed by the Lyon County Public Health Officer, Lyon County Board of Health or Lyon County Director of Health. The offense is classified as a Class C misdemeanor, punishable with a fine of up to $500, up to one month of jail time, or both.
Commissioners Becky Smith, Susan Brinkman and Rob Gilligan voted in favor of the ordinance, while Danny Giefer and Jon Geitz both voiced dissent to the measure.
City Attorney Christina Montgomery said the proposed penalties mirrored those that could be imposed through state law for disobeying orders set by the secretary of health and environment; however, the ordinance would only apply for orders instated by the county.
Currently, the county is under a statewide stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Laura Kelly through April 19. The governor’s order superseded a county-wide stay-at-home order issued by Lyon County Public Health Officer Renee Hively that would have extended through April 25.
“After the governor’s executive order expires, the county’s orders may resume,” Montgomery said. “The ordinance that we are proposing today does not give the Emporia Police Department the authority to enforce Gov. Kelly’s executive order. That is not granted to city police departments.”
However, Montgomery added that EPD officers can charge individuals with the crime of “interference with law enforcement” if they are found to be disobeying a lawful order, such as holding a large gathering and refusing to disperse.
Interim Police Chief Ed Owens said the police department had requested the city consider adopting such an ordinance.
“This is not giving us carte blanche to go out and do what we want,” Owens said. “We just had nothing to enforce [this] locally.”
Owens said he felt the new code would help to “streamline” the police department’s response to complaints related to the stay-at-home orders with the municipal court.
Geitz said his main concern was imposing city code based on a county-wide order. He said he would rather see the county commission make such a declaration, rather than the city.
“I think the best thing we can do is strongly encourage everyone to follow the orders,” he said. “Every group can have one or two people that can really want to violate the order, and I think the best thing we can do is just everyone understand the severity of the health order and be smart about it so the police don’t have to be involved to begin with.”
Brinkman said she voted in favor of the ordinance because she felt it was important for the local authorities to be able to enforce a public health order.
“From my perspective, all this does is better utilize our human resources — and particularly our law enforcement officers,” she told The Emporia Gazette in a phone interview after the meeting. “Instead of just a few folks from the county being able to protect our citizenry and follow these guidelines — which are really critical.
“The sooner we can all agree to that, the sooner we can all go back out. This allows the EPD to work within the same jurisdiction of the law, and we are a city within the county, so I don’t see why we wouldn’t want to align better with the county in terms of how we are enforcing the laws on the books.”
Commissioners also discussed how future meetings will be held as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Montgomery said city commissioners were required by state statute to make the meetings publicly available, even if the public could not attend for safety reasons — as is the case right now.
The board will meet virtually next week.
Geitz said Emporians who would like to ask questions or have items for public comment should consider submitting their questions to the city manager’s office or by contacting commissioners directly.
“Contact the city manager’s office or email one of the city commissioners,” he said. “Our contact information is on the first page of the city website.”
Meeting agendas and minutes, along with contact information for the city commission can be found at www.emporia-kansas.gov/index.php/city-commission.
Call 343-4250 to reach City Manager Mark McAnarney’s office.
The commission also:
• Approved the Riverside Addition Rural Housing Incentive District
• Proclaimed April as National Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Month on behalf of SOS, Inc.