2020 | Coronavirus

Rockville cancels emergency power for city manager during pandemic

In council vote to rescind ordinance, one dissents

share this

Rockville City Council members from left: Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton, Monique Ashton, and Beryl Feinberg. Shown on the bottom row, from left: David Myles and Mark Pierzchala

Photos from Rockville

After granting the city manager the power to suspend certain laws during the coronavirus pandemic, Rockville changed its mind and rescinded the ordinance three weeks later.

All but Council Member Mark Pierzchala voted to rescind the law because of concerns over the inability to entirely undo any actions taken by the city manager.

The ordinance allowed Rockville City Manager Rob DiSpirito to suspend certain laws “to the extent necessary to ensure the City government continues to function in a manner consistent with best practices identified by health authorities and the executive orders” of Gov. Larry Hogan during the public health emergency in the state.

DiSpirito took no emergency actions under the law.

An example council members cited about their concern was if DiSpirito bought emergency supplies and the council disagreed, the city still would have to pay unless the supplies could be returned.

At the time the council granted the emergency power, city attorney Debra Daniel gave a few examples were given of what DiSpirito could do with the additional authority. They included suspending the requirement for the financial advisory board to meet at City Hall and allowing bids to be submitted electronically instead of in a sealed envelope.

The council voted 3-2 on March 23 to grant the emergency powers to the city manager. Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton and Council Members Monique Ashton and Mark Pierzchala voted to pass it.

Council Members Beryl Feinberg and David Myles voted against the law because they felt the city manager did not need additional authority to respond to public health needs. They were also concerned about the council not having any involvement in certain decisions.

On March 30, after some council members expressed concern about what they had passed, the council asked Daniel to draft three possible ordinances to rescind or amend the ordinance, or to replace it with a new one.

The council wanted to include clearer definitions of limits to the law and add a date that the additional authority would end. The drafts proposed ending the city manager’s additional authority three months after the ordinance was adopted or when the state’s public health emergency ended.

But some council members thought differently by April 13.

Pierzchala made a motion to approve an amended ordinance, but the motion failed since none of the other council members seconded it.

“It’s unclear to me whether or not the mayor and council have the ability to reverse a decision. … If there is an action taken, there doesn’t seem to be a mechanism in place for us to truly reverse it,” Myles said at the April 13 meeting.

Pierzchala said the ordinance could be amended to add additional limits.

“If we don’t pass this ordinance or some ordinance, basically, that means the city manager has no emergency powers,” he said. “I don’t want to be in that situation. I think there can be situations where it is difficult to get three of us together on a time frame that’s necessary.”

If the council didn’t pass the law, the city manager couldn’t make any decisions that contravene existing city laws, he said.

“If we’re ever in a position where that needs to happen and we can’t get three people together on the spur of the moment, that can have bad impacts for the city,” Pierzchala said.

Pierzchala said he didn’t think the city should be in the position of not having an emergency ordinance.

“I think that’s wrong,” he said.

Myles said he was concerned about the content of what the council would be passing.

“What is it that constitutes an action that would reduce the spread of COVID-19?” he said.

Newton said the emergency powers would just cause confusion.

“It just doesn’t seem to be a necessary thing right now,” she said.

Ashton said that when she voted to approve the first ordinance, she saw the need for flexibility in addressing emergency needs. However, she said she was concerned that the council wouldn’t have the ability to overturn something that they disagreed with.

Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at briana.adhikusuma@bethesdamagazine.com.