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New Petition Would Block Unalaska City Officials' Power To Mandate Public Health Measures

Berett Wilber

A campaign to limit Unalaska officials' power to require mask-wearing and other public health measures is one step closer to heading to the ballot box.

The city issued a pair of petitions last week that seek to amend two sections of the Unalaska Code of Ordinances. The measures would restrict the powers of the City Council, the city manager and the director of emergency preparedness during an epidemic. 

"We feel that the local City Council has consistently issued resolutions that are completely inconsistent with our values and way of life and rights as Americans," said Jeff Manns, a retired Alaska State Trooper and one of the primary sponsors of the petitions. 

Manns says he, along with 11 other sponsors, doesn't want city officials to be able to impose health mandates without a court order.

Unalaskans' freedom of movement and choice have been compromised by mandatory quarantines, business closures, gathering limitations and face coverings, he said.  

"Our initiative doesn't prevent the city from making recommendations, or conducting safety protocols or responses to an emergency or disaster," Manns said. "What it does is require them to go through the courts." 

The sponsors have 90 days from the date the petitions were issued to get 124 signatures on each one from registered Unalaska voters, which is equal to 25 percent of the ballots cast in the most recent municipal election.

"We have no doubt we're going to get the required number of signatures to put this before the voters," Manns said. 

Vice Mayor Dennis Robinson said he isn't so sure. But if they do, Robinson added, he thinks Unalaskans will vote the initiatives down.

The City Council and city manager, he said, have done a "great job" in keeping Unalaskans relatively protected against COVID-19 through strict local health mandates. And those mandates are critical on an island as remote as Unalaska, which is located next to a volcano, prone to earthquakes, threatened by tsunamis and sits 800 air miles from the nearest hospital, he added. 

"This pandemic did not come with instructions. And the next one will not come with instructions, either," Robinson said. "There may be a whole different set of rules that need to be followed. And I would prefer that those rules were made locally, rather than having the state or the federal government impose those on us." 

Robinson said he doesn't think getting a court order to pass local health mandates would be a problem. But he added that he thinks it would be a waste of time, effort and money to take that extra step. 

If Manns' petitions get enough signatures from registered voters, the matter will be on the ballot at the next municipal election, or in a special election. 

If voters approve the ballot initiatives, they become law and the Unalaska City Council cannot change the relevant area of code for a period of two years.

Hope McKenney is a public radio news director, reporter, producer and host based in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska.
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