Extensive debate and public controversy preceded the Decatur City Council's vote Wednesday approving a mask ordinance, but at 9:55 this morning the council will vote on the same issue again.
Procedural irregularities marred Wednesday's vote, which took place after members of the public had left City Hall. Today's redo will include a vote to determine whether there is unanimous consent to consider the ordinance. If there is, the council will again vote on the ordinance itself.
The main significance may be that it adds two days to the earliest date the ordinance can take effect, assuming Mayor Tab Bowling follows through on his stated plan to wait the maximum 10 days before vetoing or signing it.
Bowling's stance concerns supporters of the ordinance as COVID-19 cases continue to increase in the county.
The Alabama Department of Public Health reported that Morgan County had 63 new cases Thursday, its highest daily county since testing began, bringing its cumulative total to 1,220. The next highest daily count was June 14, when ADPH reported 47 new cases in the county.
Twenty-seven percent of Morgan County's cases have been in the last 14 days. Over the last 14 days, 13.67% of tests administered in the county have come back positive. Five Morgan County residents have died of the disease.
Decatur Morgan Hospital on Thursday had 27 confirmed COVID-19 patients — the most since the pandemic began — and 15 patients who were awaiting test results.
Jackson said he is already unhappy with the mayor’s plan to use the 10 days, so he doesn’t like adding two more days to the timetable.
“He’s playing political games,” Jackson said of Bowling. “And it’s bothersome he would be so nonchalant about something that could keep people from getting sick and possibly dying.”
Councilman Chuck Ard, who voted against the ordinance Wednesday, said he “doesn’t like it at all” that Bowling is delaying a decision on whether to sign or veto the ordinance.
“Now we’re getting into politics, and it’s a shame,” Ard said.
Bibbee said the issues involved are too important for political maneuvering.
“We have an obligation to our citizens even if this damages our reelections,” said Bibbee, referring to the upcoming municipal election on Aug. 25.
Bowling, Ard and Councilwoman Kristi Hill said they oppose the ordinance because they fear it will have a negative impact on local businesses.
If Bowling ultimately vetoes the ordinance, a two-thirds majority of the council would be needed in order to override the veto. That would require four affirmative votes, one more than supported the ordinance in Wednesday's vote.
Today's re-vote follows confusion at Wednesday's meeting over whether the council's unanimous consent was needed and whether the council could vote on the ordinance. An ordinance has to be read at two meetings unless the council unanimously agrees to approve it at initial introduction.
After informally agreeing unanimous consent wasn’t needed because it had been introduced Monday, the council voted 3-2 to approve the ordinance that carries up to a $500 fine for a citation.
However, City Attorney Herman Marks had second thoughts as the council went upstairs for an executive session, and despite frustration expressed by Bibbee and the other council members, they reconvened in the council chambers on the first floor. By that time, the public audience had left the building.
Marks said he had remembered the ordinance was introduced in a Monday work session, not a regular or called meeting, and urged the council to redo the vote if unanimous consent was given.
With Ard absent for the re-votes, the council approved unanimous consent and passed the ordinance again with a 3-1 vote.
Marks on Thursday said he recommended the council hold the called meeting today because the public was not in attendance at Wednesday’s second round of votes.
“The public didn’t know what we were doing, so we’re trying to be open and transparent as we can,” Marks said.
Ard said he agrees the council needs to meet again even though he knows the ordinance will still pass.
“We have to follow the proper process,” Ard said. “It’s a shame we couldn’t make it retroactive, but the public needs to be there.”
Bibbee said she has been exploring whether a mandatory mask order could be implemented without an ordinance. She and several council members have said they would like the Alabama Department of Public Health to implement the requirement.
Bibbee said the Morgan County Health Department doesn’t have the same powers as the Madison County Health Department, which implemented a countywide order, because Morgan County never set up a health department authority.
Bibbee asked Marks to find out if Police Chief Nate Allen can declare face masks mandatory since Allen was given ultimate authority under the city's state of emergency, declared in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Allen is chairman of the Morgan County Infectious Disease Task Force, which Marks said is an advisory board in nature with no powers.
Marks said he and Allen are seeking input on whether Allen has the power to declare face masks mandatory.
This would give the council a way around the mayoral delay on the proposed ordinance or a veto, but Kirby, Jackson and Bibbee said they don’t want Allen to be stuck with the potential political fallout.
“It would be wrong to put this on Chief Allen’s back,” Jackson said.
While Allen spoke out in favor of the ordinance Wednesday, Bibbee said it wouldn't be fair to leave the mask issue to him.
However, Bibbee said Allen may have no choice if coronavirus infections continue to rise and Decatur Morgan Hospital is overwhelmed.