PALMDALE — The City Council, on Wednesday, failed to pass a resolution extending the COVID-19 local emergency declaration, risking potentially millions of dollars in federal funding and eliminating provisions allowing for remote participation in meetings.

The Council voted 2-2 to approve the resolution, with Mayor Steve Hofbauer and Councilmember Austin Bishop voting against the extension. Mayor Pro Tem Laura Bettencourt, who is battling cancer and has been attending meetings via Zoom, was absent due to her illness, according to Hofbauer.

Because the vote was tied, the motion to extend the local emergency declaration failed.

The vote came about shortly before 11 p.m., following nearly 90 minutes of public comment and Council discussion. Dozens of people addressed the Council about the emergency declaration, all but one of them opposed to continuing it. Their arguments focused largely on the contention that an emergency does not exist, and that continuing it would be an abuse of their freedoms “for a few dollars,” as one woman phrased it.

Many also spoke out passionately against vaccination mandates, and in some cases mask requirements, although those issues were not part of the emergency declaration itself.

“I think what the public is asking for us, tonight, to do is to make a statement,” Councilmember Richard Loa said, regardless of the content of the resolution.

“What it boils down to me, really, is if we issue a protest here in Palmdale at the risk of perhaps losing, not chump change, but millions of dollars,” he said.

The City declared a local emergency in March 2020, following state and county declarations, and have extended that declaration several times since, in 60-day increments.

By continuing the local emergency declaration, the City may operate under emergency amendments to the Ralph M. Brown Act — the state’s open-meeting law — allowing for participation in meetings via teleconference, without the usual requirements for posting the agenda in the remote location and public accessibility.

Hofbauer gave the example of Bettencourt, who would, without the emergency declaration, be required to open her home (or wherever she was participating from) to the public and post an agenda there.

The emergency amendments also allow for public participation via teleconference, either via phone or internet.

“It does provide greater access to individuals to participate in the public process, because they can do it both in person or remotely,” City Attorney Christopher Beck said.

The emergency declaration also makes the city eligible to receive funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency; without it, the city can not file claims for reimbursement of expenses, Finance Manager Keith Kang said.

“There’s a significant impact if we don’t have this in place,” he said.

Emergency funding has been used to back programs such as rental and mortgage relief, restaurant support, mental health and food distribution.

Asked to quantify the amount of funding the city stands to lose without an emergency declaration in place, Kang said he could not provide specific numbers, as it is regarding future costs, but that it could be in the millions of dollars.

“There are significant implications,” he said. “Not having the FEMA (funding) would be quite detrimental.”

Councilmember Juan Carrillo said that the programs funded through the emergency, such as expanded food distribution programs, are still needed.

“If we don’t pass this, that’s just one program that won’t be able to continue. That’s just one,” he said.

“I believe we need to pass this, because there will be consequences,” Carrillo said. “I respect your freedom. I respect your choice. But I know that you know that there will be a consequence.”

Loa questioned whether the wording in the original emergency declaration, which stated it was “authorizing the Director of Emergency Services to continue to take appropriate measures to protect the public health, safety, and welfare, and obtain emergency aid from other agencies,” could be interpreted to mean the city’s director could institute vaccination or mask mandates, “or other any other imposition on individual freedoms.”

City Manager J.J. Murphy reiterated the stated position of himself, the mayor and other city officials that such mandates are not in city policy, nor are any forthcoming.

“We’ve been staunch that we’re not requiring the vaccine,” he said. “We have a duty to protect. We don’t intend to bring any more restrictive rules.”

Loa said he could support only the ability to continue remote participation, but he was very concerned about the emergency declaration allowing for other regulations to be imposed.

Following the vote, Hofbauer requested that staff look for “any sort of work-around outside the state of emergency declaration language.”

“I don’t think that there is, for the remote public participation in meetings,” he said.

City officials are already seeking legal means of opposing the Los Angeles County Public Health Officer orders requiring proof of vaccination to enter some public spaces and other restrictions.

Hofbauer, especially, has been vocal about pushing back against the mandates and regulations, and has stated the city won’t handle enforcement of the county orders. However, he also made note during the discussion that the issue of the emergency declaration has nothing to do with those mandates and public health orders.

Since the beginning of the pandemic through Nov. 2, Palmdale has recorded more than 30,000 cases of COVID-19 and 361 deaths, according to the Los Angeles County Public Health Department.

Other area government agencies have continued their local emergency declarations to meet the provisions of the legislation, including the City of Lancaster, Mojave Air and Space Port, Palmdale Water District, Mojave Unified School District and Antelope Valley-East Kern Water Agency, among others.

(1) comment

Jimzan 2.0

If money is your God then "kneel to it" like a Democrat. If you believe Freedom is your God given right...then "Demand it" . I say they can take their money and "shove it". I say we cut their power (from our solar fields), and the water they receive from us, if they give us any static...Game On !!

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