Chatfield City Council members and department heads held a special meeting on March 16 to discuss how to keep city services operating in the event the coronavirus affects city staff. Councilor Josh Broadwater was absent.
Mayor Russ Smith explained we have to look at what we will need to do if key staff are sick or quarantined for two weeks. Who will take over for essential personnel?
City Clerk Joel Young reported that for the last couple of weeks we have been discussing “what ifs.” What is our responsibility and what can we do remotely? A fair number of us can work remotely. We will need to upgrade some computers to do so. Later in the meeting the council approved the purchase of one laptop and the installation of virtual private network (vpn) capability on three laptops. This will allow more work to be done remotely. The estimated cost for the upgrades is $2,500.
Monica Erickson reported that several libraries have closed their doors along with the school closings and they expect to remain closed until the schools reopen. She awaits the direction of the Library Board of Trustees, which she expects to consider the possibility of closing in the near future. She was concerned that if many area libraries close, more people will come to our community to use computers. She said if she were to get sick she could work remotely. Due dates have been extended and fines are to be waived at libraries that have been closed.
Mayor Smith questioned the authority the city has to cancel things in town, things that are outside of city operations. Do we shut everything or move forward cautiously? Do we deem some functions non-essential?
Brian Burkholder said additional protective gear is now mandatory for those working in the wastewater treatment plant. They are doing cross training with the city of Eyota, so they could cover for each other. An engineering firm and a qualified private citizen are also willing to help if employees can not come to work. He maintained that “wet wipes” can’t be put into the sewer. People that work on water services should limit time together with those who work on sewer services. On the water side, people can work remotely.
Melissa Burnett said CCTV is ready to cover sporting events when they resume and will continue to cover city council meetings.
Kay Coe assured everyone that there is technology support in place to keep the city operating. Closing the clerk’s office window could protect employees. Beth Carlson said closing the service window is like personal protective equipment for office staff. This virus is new and we don’t know much about it. No one has immunity to it.
Rocky Burnett and Nancy Timm explained there are a few EMTs that could fill in for them if they were sick or quarantined. The city has adequate supplies of face masks and protective gear. Mutual aid from other communities is available. Timm noted information is changing rapidly from the CDC and the Minnesota Department of Health.
Chris Giesen reported that the EDA will keep local businesses informed about any state and federal government assistance programs. He floated the idea of a brief loan holiday for businesses to help them through the coming months.
Police Chief Shane Fox has directed his officers to be cautious and try to determine if there is an infectious situation when they respond to medical emergencies.
Fire Chief Ryan Priebe said meetings of the fire department will be canceled during this period so as not to have all firefighters together in one location.
Councilor Paul Novotny suggested each department should have a depth chart, which will show how operations can continue based on the availability of certain employees. He added that he wants to be able to assure employees that they could be protected from using vacation time during this period.
Mayor Smith questioned whether a government entity should mandate a private industry to close down, especially without providing a financial incentive. It had been noted that Governor Walz had just announced an executive order to restrict bars and restaurants from dine-in service, only allowing takeout.
Discussion ensued with some questioning the extent of business activity being limited. There was agreement that inconvenience to the public should be minimized.
City Attorney Fred Suhler explained that in an emergency the mayor has some broad authority, but this authority is limited by the city council. The council can ratify, reject, or modify provisions proclaimed by the mayor.
There was more discussion regarding the service window at the clerk’s office, if it should remain open. It was questioned whether the entire building should remain open. Just about everything done in the building can be done electronically, through mail, using the drop box or by telephone. Closing the building would be an inconvenience, but would not cause a loss of services. No action was taken.