2020 | Coronavirus

Rockville narrowly gives city manager emergency authority to suspend laws

Some concerned about allowing decisions without council input

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The Rockville City Council on Monday evening voted 3-2 to let the city manager suspend certain laws to slow the speed of the coronavirus.

Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton and Council Members Monique Ashton and Mark Pierzchala voted to allow it. Council Members Beryl Feinberg and David Myles voted against it, expressing concerns about whether it was necessary.

The ordinance was written and amended by the council to give City Manager Rob DiSpirito the ability 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.

Debra Daniel, Rockville’s city attorney, provided several examples of items that might come up, such as 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.

Newton said another example would be a resident’s recent question of whether recreational vehicles could be used as a way to keep family members separated if a quarantine was needed.

If DiSpirito takes any action under the ordinance, he must put it in writing and sign it, post it to the city website, transmit it to the city clerk for records, and immediately relay it to the council.

He would also be required to consult with the mayor and council before making a decision, when possible.

Feinberg and Myles disagreed that the city manager needed the additional power.

They both said they trusted DiSpirito in his decisions, but didn’t feel that the ordinance added to the tools already in place for him to make emergency decisions.

Feinberg said she thought the ordinance was vague and “broad-brushed.” DiSpirito could enter into a lease or make significant budgetary changes without consulting the council, she said.

“We, in the city, do not provide health services. Certainly, we provide public safety. … So when I have asked, ‘What is the need for this?,’ I don’t get many answers,” Feinberg said. “We have in place emergency procurements which certainly would avail the acquisitions of any good or services that the city manager felt we needed to obtain.”

Daniel said she felt the ordinance’s language is “narrow” and only trying to address continuity of operations in accordance with social distancing and trying to limit face-to-face interactions.

“I think the city manager arguably already has this authority, but based on some of my interactions with other jurisdictions, it’s come up that it’s prudent and a best practice to adopt an ordinance along these lines,” Daniel said. “It would just further protect the city.”

She said it isn’t practical to bring every immediate need before the city leaders.

DiSpirto said he didn’t think the ordinance was “essential,” but if circumstances came up outside regular business hours and he needed to do something, he would do it “as conscientiously and transparently” as he could.

“I think it does facilitate things, but clearly, I’m not going to sit here and say it’s something I have to have,” he said.

Feinberg said she didn’t understand the urgency — the city is already following instructions and guidance from health authorities and the state.

Myles said he was “wrestling” with two hypotheticals: addressing a future concern from a resident on why certain decisions were allowed to be made or a city manager that goes “rogue.”

“I think that we do need to allow the city manager to do what needs to be done to keep people safe,” he said. “I’m just trying to figure out the best way to do that and how we explain ourselves in the years to come.”

Both Pierzchala and Ashton said DiSpirito would still answer to the council and the council could undo any action he took.

“If we really have an issue with how the city manager handles this, we can undo what he does and we have other actions,” Pierzchala said. “But I don’t think that with our present city manager that we’re going to have that issue.”

Daniel added that the ordinance would only give DiSpirito the abilities until the end of the public health emergency in the state and the council can rescind it at any time. It would also not be a legal precedent.

Pierzchala said he wasn’t worried about setting a precedent.

“It’s such a unique circumstance. … I am worried about us not having the ability to be agile enough,” he said. “We don’t know how we would have to help the county or the region.”

Myles and Feinberg both said that even though it wasn’t a legal precedent, it could be used in the future.

Feinberg said she takes issue with not requiring the city manager to consult with the council.

“It is informing us of a decision. It’s not us participating in a decision,” she said.

But Newton said the urgency of emergency action should be the priority.

“We are in uncharted water,” she said. “I would hope that our need to be included and engaged and participating in the decision making would not overshadow the urgency of something.”

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