More than 15 people, mostly unmasked, attended Thursday’s Kodiak Island Borough Assembly meeting and many of them spoke up to protest the indoor mask mandate instituted by the Kodiak Emergency Services Council. There were also calls for the ESC to be disbanded.
The Assembly meeting marks the second public gathering in a week where residents protested the mask mandate that is currently in place in an effort to control the spread of the virus that causes COVID. Ten unmasked community members and parents held a sit-in at the Kodiak Island Borough School District Board of Education meeting on Oct. 18 to protest the district’s mandate.
At the Assembly meeting, resident Jamie Fagan referenced John Dalberg-Acton’s famous quote: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and applied it to the Emergency Services Council, the seven-person board comprised of the city and borough mayors and five unelected community leaders. The ESC’s traditional role in public safety is to manage the response to quickly emerging, potentially dangerous situations such as earthquakes and tsunamis. As COVID has lingered, the ESC’s role in setting the local tone for public safety has become questioned in various public settings.
“They issue orders by decree and no public debate is allowed, the public is not allowed to attend their meetings and most ESC members are unelected and are thus not beholden to voters,” Fagan said.
Fagan said it was time for the ESC to stand down.
“They have been in power for 18 months, and in my opinion that is 17 months too long,” Fagan said. “This is the power of a king and is unconstitutional and immoral.”
The ESC declared a local health emergency for Kodiak Island in March 2020 as the COVID pandemic began to spread across the nation.
Fagan said the ESC’s powers need to “be dissolved and re-issued only under the most dire of situations such as a tsunami.” He also called for a sunset clause to ensure the ESC isn’t in effect for any longer than necessary.
Resident John Neff said he valued his freedom as an American “to wear or not wear a mask, to get vaccinated or not and (for) a whole host of reasons.” Neff said he believed the ESC’s creation “was initially created with the public’s best interest in mind,” but he now labels it a rogue entity.
Like Fagan, he called for de-powering the ESC.
“I believe the only right thing to do for the best interest of the people of Kodiak is for the immediate termination of all powers given to the (ESC), removal of their propaganda signs on the side of the road and removal of the illegitimate mask mandate that is currently in effect,” Neff said.
Both the borough and the city of Kodiak have ordinances governing the ESC. Kodiak City Code 2.32 and Kodiak Island Borough Code 2.110 jointly spell out the membership roster and designates the city manager as emergency services director. The ESC can declare a local emergency at the recommendation of the director, approve emergency response plans and issue policy guidelines.
The ordinances also stipulate that the director, with advice from the ESC, can issue reasonable rules and regulations related to public safety.
Cort Neff said he agreed with his son John’s statement, adding that “having a board run our decisions and not our elected officials is wrong.
“I don’t care for what has happened in this religion of mask mandates.”
Resident Stan Duncan also argued against the ESC’s indoor mask mandate, adding that making “little kids wear masks is evil.”
“People aren’t actually bothered by the fact you’re wearing a mask or not, they’ll just stay away from you,” Duncan said. “They are bothered because you are disobeying.”
He added that the pandemic did not cause businesses and social activities to suffer, but rather the response to the pandemic is what has caused harm.
“You can try and convince yourself we had no choice, but that is a lie and you know it,” Duncan said.
Ginger Duncan, Stan Duncan’s wife, said mask mandates are harmful because of the separation they create.
“Masks should not be mandated, and a mandate is not a law,” Ginger Duncan said. “No one can make a law except a legislator.”
Ginger Duncan later referenced Assembly Member Joe Delgado’s reading of the Alutiiq Land Promise at the start of citizens’ comments, saying that “we just want to live our lives, to gather our tribe.”
TVENGE: ‘DON’T UNDERSTAND THE ANGER’
City Manager Mike Tvenge, who serves as the emergency services director, in a Friday interview with KDM said he couldn’t respond to some of the comments made during the public comments portion of the meeting because they are false.
“All I heard was praise for the ESC in the early days of the pandemic,” he said. “We filled a niche that needed to be filled and people were happy to have someone take charge, keeping the harbors safe with our use agreement to keep the virus out.”
He added that he is surprised people are now changing their tune.
“I understand that people are frustrated and tired of COVID, but I don’t understand the anger,” Tvenge said. “I think people are carrying it too far.”
Tvenge said the ESC will continue operating for as long as it’s needed.
“We’re still in the middle of a pandemic,” Tvenge said. “We haven’t met in weeks because we don’t have any policy changes going on.”
Tvenge said the case counts and levels of statewide hospitalizations speak for themselves.
“I don’t know how we prevent it, but we are not mandating vaccines … and we haven’t imposed many sanctions on the community over the last almost two years,” Tvenge said. The ESC imposed an initial mask mandate that was later repealed, implemented a hunker-down order under guidance from the state and imposed only one business occupancy change.
“All those went away and at this point in time we have decided to stand back and everyone is taking their own precautions,” Tvenge said.
Standing down, he added, makes no sense at the moment.
“Someone has to respond to disasters and emergencies, and it’s written into the emergency response plan who these people are,” Tvenge said.
Tvenge said the new mask mandate implemented Aug. 27 was at the request of Chamber of Commerce members to protect employees and customers.
“That’s what we did,” Tvenge said. “We’re not forcing the businesses to do this. … Some choose to enforce it and some are more relaxed with it. We can accept that because there is never 100% compliance.”
However, Tvenge said, for the betterment of everyone’s health, people should be cautious.
“To walk into the store for 10 or 15 minutes with a mask on and remove it when you leave isn’t too much to ask,” Tvenge said, adding that Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, has urged people to wear masks to protect people’s health.
Tvenge said there are no strings attached to the federal relief money distributed to businesses during the height of the pandemic.
He said most of the ESC’s members and the people in the Emergency Operations Center, including himself, have lived through the pandemic for nearly two years.
“There is no ill in anyone’s heart, it’s for the people,” he said. “People are working two jobs … the people that put out the reports are doing this double time to provide information to the public as well as their regular job.”
CHANGES WILL BE
During Thursday’s Assembly meeting, Assembly James Turner, during his Assembly comments, said he appreciated the turnout and the topic of the Emergency Services Council.
“A lot of us have had conversations about the ESC as it stands,” Turner said. “There are a lot of issues in this community that need to be addressed as far as the ESC goes, but there isn’t a lot we can do at this point.”
“We have to make changes once the ESC stands down, and we’ll have to make changes to ordinances,” Turner said.
Turner said changes made related to public attendance and public comment can only be done by amending the ESC’s bylaws, which only the ESC can do itself.
“As far as mask mandates go, we don’t have a lot of control over that because we (the Assembly) don’t control the ESC,” Turner said. “Once the ESC is in place, we don’t have a way to stop the ESC. That’s the way it is written.”
Assembly Member Scott Arndt said he and Turner are the only remaining assembly members from when the Assembly voted on its version of the ordinance governing the ESC. He and Turner both said they voted no.
Borough Mayor Bill Roberts on Friday told KDM the people of Kodiak have differences of opinion.
“Personally, I believe masks help and vaccines help, but there are those who disagree and have a right to voice that opinion,” Roberts said. “The Borough Assembly can’t do anything about [the ESC] right now.”
He added he believes some changes are likely to come, but “there probably won’t be that many major changes.”
“The ESC was set up by the borough and the city to handle emergencies and really set up as what we saw as an impending tsunami or major earthquake,” Roberts said. “It does have provisions for what to do on a pandemic and in the beginning we followed the lead of the state, which kept shifting.”
Like Turner, Roberts said he believes some changes are needed in the ESC. Roberts sits on the council as one of the two elected officials.
“I know we have talked about it, and the ESC did an after-action study when we went into a lull in the pandemic, but I haven’t seen it yet though I thought I was going to be able to review it for comment,” Roberts said.
He said the perceived problem with the ESC is that those in charge “do not represent the borough as a whole, according to those who wanted the borough to take the lead.”
“When the decision was made, the city took the lead because they have a paid fire department and police department,” Roberts said. “At a time when you have a major tsunami or earthquake, you’re going to need those powers, and those departments are more likely to listen to a city official than a borough official. Did it work out so well? I don’t know, but that’s one of the things we’ll likely discuss.”
He added that it makes a lot of sense to have the city take point, “but when the ESC is set up, there is no borough or city (for emergency decisions) and that has to be better understood.”
“I think a few things need to be rewritten a little so that it’s more clear that the ESC represents the entire borough, that it’s not just a city decision but a decision of the group,” Roberts said.
He said while discussion may come up about changes to the ESC, it won’t change the vaccination and mask debate because “it’s a national debate, and we have a big division in this country that includes Kodiak.”