The City Council on March 19 extended Mayor Allan Fung’s declaration of emergency for Cranston, although the final vote was split – and the debate over the action at times became charged.
Citywide Councilman Steve Stycos and Ward 3 Councilman John Donegan dissented on the 5-2 vote, voicing concerns over the council’s role and authority given that the extension, as presented, is meant to coincide with Gov. Gina Raimondo’s emergency declaration for the state as a whole.
While a number of alternatives were discussed in terms of the length of the extension – with proposals ranging from 14 to 60 days – Ward 2 Councilman Paul McAuley’s support for the mayor’s request as originally presented proved decisive.
“I just think we’re complicating things … If we stay with what the state is saying as far as the declaration of emergency, I think we’re covered that way,” McAuley said.
Council President Michael Farina, Citywide Councilman Ken Hopkins, Ward 2 Councilman Paul McAuley, Ward 4 Councilman Ed Brady and Ward 5 Councilman Chris Paplauskas voted in favor of the extension as presented.
Ward 1 Councilwoman Lammis Vargas and Ward 6 Councilman Michael Favicchio were absent from the meeting, which was held on an emergency basis and streamed live from City Hall’s Council Chambers.
Fung’s initial emergency declaration was issued March 14. The document served to activate the city’s Emergency Operations Plan, which outlines a range of protocols for “extraordinary emergency situations” such as the current COVID-19 pandemic.
The initial declaration, under state law, required council approval to remain in effect beyond a period of seven days.
Fung has since issued two supplementary emergency measures. The first extended Cranston’s fourth-quarter deadline from April 15 to May 15, delayed the planned April 1 introduction of a municipal budget proposal for the 2020-21 fiscal year and ordered city recreation fields closed, while the second imposed a 10-person limit on public gatherings with exceptions for businesses such as supermarkets and pharmacies.
In presenting his request for an extension of the declaration before the council last week, Fung said the situation has been “changing not just by the day, but sometimes hour by hour.”
“I’m asking for this body to codify a continuing state of emergency until such time as the governor has lifted her state of emergency, or, in my position, I see that locally, we’re in better shape, I can do that even if the governor has not for the state,” he said.
The emergency declaration, the mayor said, serves two primary purposes – expanding his authority to revoke licenses or take other steps to address violations of state and local orders, and placing the city in line for potential federal reimbursement funding down the line.
“Believe it or not, there are some businesses that are out there that are not adhering to necessarily our orders, the governor’s pronouncements, and if we need to take that kind of action immediately … we have to act,” he said.
Fung also cited three separate incidents the previous day at local recreation areas – including Fay Field, Doric Park and Cranston High School West – in which sports teams or others were gathered in violation of the local closure order and the broader prohibition on large gatherings. In the Fay Field incident, he said, Parks and Recreation Director Tony Liberatore was forced to contact police to address the situation.
“We’re trying to provide some flexibility … Stay within the confines of the governor’s mandates, that’s all we’re trying to do,” he said.
Fung acknowledged the concerns raised by Stycos and Donegan as “legitimate” but said his approach has been “very judicious.”
“I’m not going to overreact,” he said. “I’ve been in this position for almost 12 years now. I understand what’s needed in an emergency. And if there is any type of action, and I’m not sure what it might be, that requires the council approval, I will certainly come before you. But a lot of the actions that I’ve taken are minute by minute, response to specific things, and we need that authority … It helps in so many ways at the local level so we can marshal our resources.”
Stycos said his hesitance stemmed from his uncertainty over the implications of an essentially open-ended emergency declaration. He suggested a 14- or 21-day extension, followed by a council meeting to act on a potential additional continuance and address other issues related to the city’s COVID-19 response.
Prior to the final vote, Stycos said: “I guess I’m disappointed in this attempt not to come to some kind of compromise so that we can all enthusiastically support this resolution. I agree with Councilman Brady and Councilman Paplauskas that this is going to get worse and it’s certainly not going to be over in 14 days … I don’t think anyone here is questioning that it’s a good thing the mayor yesterday acted decisively when groups of people were gathering in the city and putting us all at risk. I don’t have any problem with that. I just know how – I don’t know what this emergency power extends to, and I think in general, that the people on this council have a responsibility to the voters to deal with this issue in conjunction with the mayor.”
He added: “I think to approve a resolution that is open-ended is to basically say, ‘I don’t want to be a City Council member anymore.’”
Following those remarks, Hopkins, without directly addressing Stycos, said: “I’m sitting here listening to this and I think I’m pretty disturbed that I hear a sense of politics being thrown into this … This should not be a political issue. We have a great mayor who’s giving us great direction. Let’s give him the power and the authority that he needs to keep our people safe in this city. They’re afraid, they’re scared. We need to give him the power to make the decisions.”
Donegan echoed Stycos’ sentiment and rejected Hopkins’ assertion regarding any political considerations being at play.
“I think the mayor has handled this well. Respectfully, Councilman Hopkins, it has nothing to do with being a different party,” Donegan said. My objection to an indefinite emergency declaration is merely a practical matter … I don’t think we should more or less dissolve this body for an indefinite amount of time. That’s what my objection is. It’s not to the mayor, at all. He’s handled it very well, and I am in favor of continuing the emergency declaration. I just don’t want to continue it indefinitely.”
He added: “I really hope we can find some sort of compromise here … I cannot support this indefinitely.”
Farina, Brady and Paplauskas all indicated openness to some timeframe being applied to the continuation of the emergency declaration.
“I also would like to see a horizon on this … I do, however, think it’s going to be longer than 14 days. I do think it might be longer than 30,” Farina said, suggesting a 30-day extension with the option for an additional 30 days based on the statewide situation.
He added: “I think we do have to give the mayor some latitude.”
Paplauskas rejected the 14-day timeframe as too short, and raised concerns over whether a short extension would prove counterproductive if, for example, the situation worsens to the degree that council members are not able to easily convene again.
“Unfortunately I really do think this is going to get worse … I don’t know if we’re going to be able to meet as easily as today in seven or 14 days,” he said. “I hope I’m wrong, I really do. But we’re in uncharted territory.”
Brady agreed, saying: “I’d rather be transparent and open that this isn’t going to end in two weeks … I think two weeks is way too short.”
A motion for a 45-day extension was at one point considered, but was withdrawn based on McAuley’s unwavering preference for a vote on the extension as presented.
Several council members had expressed a desire for a unanimous vote on the extension in whatever form it took, and Stycos and Donegan both appeared reluctant as they case their votes. Stycos, whose name was first in the roll call, took several seconds before voicing his “no.”
Over the course of the meeting, council members uniformly spoke highly of Fung’s response to the current crisis and the administration’s communication with the council to this point.
During the debate, in response to specific questions from council members, Fung and Assistant Solicitor John Verdecchia said the mayor would not have the authority to take action beyond the reasons outlined in the emergency order – to enact a budget for the coming year, for the example, or authorize a zone change.