WATERVILLE —  The City Council on Thursday voted 6-0 to dissolve a controversial coronavirus subcommittee that had been meeting in secret and taking illegal actions.

Councilors instead voted to empower City Manager Michael Roy to spend funds for emergency coronavirus-related efforts. They also voted 6-0 to authorize the mayor to call council meetings with 24 hours’ notice or, in his absence, authorize the council chairman to do so.

The meeting was live-streamed via a link on the city’s website, waterville-me.gov. The public was not allowed to attend the meeting in person because of the state’s mandate that more than 10 people may not congregate in one location to ward against the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.

Before the vote to disband the COVID-19 subcommittee, Councilor Claude Francke, D-Ward 6, said the ordinance that would disband the committee merely says the city manager is authorized to spend up to $150,000 from the city’s fund balance to respond to coronavirus emergency needs.

Of that amount, $120,000 would be used for personnel, $20,000 for personal protective equipment and supplies and $10,000 for food.

Francke proposed that Roy be further designated to make significant decisions regarding the coronavirus emergency situation, saying Roy is the one who has the authority to run the emergency operations and keep the city safe. Francke said if a similar emergency occurs 20 years down the road, officials can look back and say this is how the council did it this time — give the city manager the authority.

But Council Chairman Erik Thomas said while he understands Francke’s thinking, he thinks it wise to stick to the proposal at hand. Mayor Nick Isgro said he thinks City Solicitor William A. Lee is looking to give the city guidance in that respect, and the city’s Charter Commission also will look at it. Any needed decisions can come back to the council for consideration, he said.

After Roy said he was comfortable with the current proposal, but the city does need an emergency ordinance that would designate such authority in emergencies, something both he and Thomas said Lee is looking at.

The vote was 6-0 with Councilor Flavia Oliveira, D-Ward 2, absent because she has been trying to get back to the U.S. from the Cape Verde Islands, where she was visiting family. Canceled flights due to the coronavirus emergency have prevented her from returning thus far.

Originally, a task force that later was named a subcommittee with fewer members made a decision to close bars and restaurants March 16 with no notice, a decision Lee said only the council has authority to make. The committee also was meeting without allowing the press and public to attend, in violation of the public access law for such a gathering of public officials, according to Lee.

Meanwhile, Roy, as well as Isgro and Thomas, who were co-spokesmen for the task force/subcommittee, had a long conversation with Lee on Wednesday, after which Roy said said  they reached an agreement about what constitutes meetings requiring public notice.

The council Thursday voted 5-1 to suspend the city’s plastic bag ban for stores 10,000-square-feet or larger until Jan. 1, 2021. As part of the vote, the city urged shoppers to refrain from using reusable bags or to clean and-or disinfect them between uses.

Francke, an attorney, offered a point of order, saying the charter calls for emergency ordinances to be passed with unanimity and if an ordinance is not passed unanimously, it ceases to exist. But Roy said if one is not passed unanimously, the city has a separate ordinance that could be discussed and the council would have to waive cloture, or agree to put something on the agenda that is not on it, and place the item on the agenda. He said it would not be of an emergency nature and the council could take one vote Thursday night and another one in the future for it to take effect.

Francke said, however, that if it does not pass as an emergency measure and the item is considered under regular business, it would take 21 days to go into effect and by that time, the emergency would be over.

Councilor Sydney Mayhew, R-Ward 4, said he thought it made sense to follow Gov. Janet Mills’ mandate that the ban be suspended until Jan. 1, 2021. Councilor Rick Foss, R-Ward 5, said it was a safety issue he would support.

Francke then proposed an amendment to suspend the ban for 90 days. The motion failed for lack of a second and the council voted 5-1 to approve the bag ban suspension, with Francke the lone dissenter.

Because it failed emergency passage, Thomas made a motion to waive cloture to add the proposal as a non-emergency item, and the council voted 5-1 with Francke again dissenting. Because two-thirds of the council approved waiving cloture, it then considered approving a new resolution. Francke said that, because it was not an emergency ordinance anymore, it does not appear to have the urgency that everyone had given it, particularly because it would take at least three weeks before it could go into effect. Francke said he anticipated that, during that time, the city manager would not be expending resources to enforce the ban.

“Therefore, the whole exercise is an exercise in futility,” Francke said.

Isgro countered that New Hampshire and other states had implemented a stay-at-home order and with the current number of cases of coronavirus in Maine, the council could just keep kicking the matter down the road and pretend it wasn’t happening or take action. Councilor Meg Smith, D-Ward 3, said it pained her to suspend the bag ban, but she would follow Mill’s lead and vote for it.

The council voted 5-1 for the request with Francke again dissenting.

The council on March 20 voted 5-1 to suspend the plastic bag ban, with Francke voting against it.

Because that vote was not unanimous, another vote was needed to approve the bag ban suspension, according to Lee. Mayor Nick Isgro had argued for suspending the ban until Jan. 1, 2021, but Francke proposed suspending it only until the coronavirus emergency is over.

Also March 20, the council voted 5-1 to trim the number of members on the COVID-19 subcommittee in an attempt to allow the panel to continue meeting in secret, a move Francke said he could not support. He voted against the idea, saying such meetings should be public.

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