by Matthew Christian
The Florence City Council passed an emergency ordinance Tuesday to deal with the coronavirus.
The ordinance passed on first reading, something that Jim Peterson said he had never seen done in his time as city attorney.
Peterson explained to the council that he has been working as city attorney since 1994 and Tuesday was the first time that the city has ever passed an ordinance with just one reading.
“The South Carolina Code specifically allows for emergency ordinances on one reading where public health and other emergency situations require,” Peterson said.
Also, because of its nature as an emergency ordinance, the city council needed to pass the ordinance by a super-majority, or two-thirds of its members.
The ordinance passed 6-0.
Florence City Councilwoman Octavia Williams-Blake did not attend Tuesday’s special meeting.
Peterson said the city was not doing anything “hugely dramatic” with the ordinance.
He said the first page and a half of the ordinance describes the state of affairs related to coronavirus, including mentioning that Gov. Henry McMaster has declared a state of emergency.
Peterson then added that the ordinance does three or four things.
First, the ordinance authorizes City Manager Drew Griffin to change the operating procedures of the city to respond to the situation.
Griffin outlined those changes to the council before Peterson spoke Tuesday afternoon.
The city’s human resources department will be closed to the public. Most hiring will be suspended through June 30.
The city’s utility finance department will remain open, but it is requested that residents strongly consider alternative methods of payment including by phone at 843-665-3155, by drop-box at the city center, by mail, automatic bank draft, or online.
All citizen’s police academy events, citizen’s advisory committees, and police Explorer scouting programs have been suspended.
The city’s police department will suspend assistance of all special road events.
All fire stations will be closed to the public and fire inspections have been suspended. All fire department public education activities are suspended as well.
All city community centers are closed until further notice. Spring break camps are canceled, senior trips and activities are suspended, and all other special events until May 15 are canceled.
All athletic programs are suspended until April 12.
All sports events and tournaments are canceled until May 15.
Bus tours and community meetings related to the update of the city’s comprehensive plan are postponed.
The planning, business license, and building departments will remain open, but access will be restricted to customers with business directly related to zoning compliance, business licenses, and building permits.
All downtown events from March 17 to May 15 are postponed. These include the Eastern South Carolina Mustang Club Regional Car Show, the Florence Wine and Food Festival, the first Florence After Five, Victors Music in the Courtyard, and the Habitat for Humanity Cinco de Mayo celebration.
Also, the city’s employee wellness program’s annual 5K has been postponed.
The ordinance authorizes Griffin to cancel city permits to prevent the gathering of over 50 people.
The city has also enacted rules to enforce a three- to six-foot barrier between employees and the public.
Florence Mayor Stephen J. Wukela also held a press conference Tuesday afternoon outlining some of the changes.
He also mentioned that the restrictions recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and DHEC will take some getting used to for Southerners because of the handshaking and greeting that goes on in the South.
Second, the ordinance allows Griffin to waive the various deadlines contained in the city ordinances in recognition that a state of emergency exists.
This part of the ordinance specifically references how utility billing will be handled including authorizing Griffin to suspend the suspension of utility services for non-payment.
“Drew has indicated that that would be what we would normally do,” Peterson said. “That’s not new. We’ve done that during other situations like this like in response to hurricane situations.”
Peterson added that he hoped the public would not take this to mean that they do not have to pay their utility bills. Those bills are still due, he said, but it recognizes that no one should lose utilities during the pandemic.
He also said Griffin would work with people who get abnormally large bills after the crisis ends to get those bills paid but not immediately.
Griffin added that penalty fees would also be suspended.
Third, he said, the ordinance acts to meet the requirements of the state’s Freedom of Information Act regarding open meetings in a situation where it’s recommended that no more than 10 or 50 people gather in any one place at one time.
The ordinance does this in two ways, Peterson continued. First, it allows the city council members, at their discretion, to participate in meetings electronically. Second, the ordinance authorizes the live streaming of the city’s meetings in a way that allows anyone to access and participate in the meeting.
Peterson added that it was the hope of the council to operate as the council was operating Thursday with increased distances between chairs and people if possible.
Nothing will change as far as the city’s duties to announce the meetings and provide agendas for the meetings to be held.
Also, the ordinance has a firm expiration date of 60 days because it was passed on one reading.
Peterson added that the ordinance contains a provision that allows for it to cease effect if Gov. Henry McMaster removes the state of emergency declaration before the 60-day time frame.
If the state of emergency remains longer than 60 days, the ordinance would expire at the end of the 60 days. However, the city could have two meetings — enough time to approve first and second readings of an ordinance setting out restrictions — by that time.
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