By JEFF CLEMETSON | La Mesa Courier
On April 14, La Mesa City Council met for the first time since citywide stay-at-home orders were put in place. And in another first, the meeting was held entirely online. At the top of the agenda was formalizing emergency actions to fight the coronavirus outbreak taken over the last month without a council vote.
City Attorney Glen Sabine explained that San Diego County authorizes city mayors in the event of an emergency the ability to appoint a director of emergency and disaster and that the appointed director could take emergency actions without council approval as long as the council votes on those actions at the next city council meeting. On March 13, Mayor Mark Aropostathis appointed City Manager Greg Humora that role.
Humora then gave a report of actions the city took in the days and weeks following his appointment as director of emergency and disaster, including: declaring a state of emergency; cancelling large gatherings and all city meetings and programs; freezing all evictions in the city; closing bars; ending ticketing for street sweeping; providing free parking in the Village for people picking up food orders from restaurants; closing the Secret Stairs; and closing parking lots for parks and playgrounds.
The city also enacted some changes in its operations. In late March and early April, a community of operations plan (COOP) was put in place that allowed city workers to telecommute; provided more leave time for city employees who may have used theirs up; created a web portal for city employees to complete work; allowed for city permits to be issued online; and ordered department heads to prepare for a 30% reduction in workforce by cross training people from other departments to complete work. Currently, the city has not had to furlough any workers and is operating all essential services at capacity. Before taking questions from the council, Humora ended his report by thanking the city’s staff and employees for the work they have done in the midst of the pandemic.
“I also want to thank the residents of La Mesa who have been adhering to the recommendations from the city and the medical community to stay home because it really does save lives,” said Council member Dr. Akilah Weber. “It is something in the medical community that we cannot stress enough.”
Weber had two questions for Humora and Sabine. The first was whether federal relief funds are available for La Mesa. Humora said the city is already in the process of applying for both state and federal funding.
“The tricky part is its coming from various departments of the federal government, but we are actively monitoring things,” he said, adding that one funding source the city will be taking advantage of is additional community development block grant funds coming later this year.
Weber also asked for clarity on the city’s eviction freeze. Sabine said the city, the state and the Judicial Council have all confirmed that the eviction freeze is in effect and will remain in place for 90 days after the emergency is lifted.
“More than anything, the rules that are enforced at the local level, the state level and now the Judicial Council, they provide for an affirmative defense against eviction,” he said. “Right now, at least from my standpoint, I feel pretty confident that folks can feel secure that they will not be evicted.”
Following discussion, the council voted to officially make Humora the director of emergency and disaster and support the actions taken by the city since March 13. the City Council then discussed other possible actions the city could take.
Council member Kristine Alessio said existing and future permits for public events in the city will need to be examined.
“I cannot imagine a car show… I cannot imagine an Oktoberfest going on,” she said. “I think all this needs to put on hiatus in whatever legal way it can be.”
There were several public comments emailed in to the council and read into the record by City Clerk Megan Wiegelman about a proposal by Council member Colin Parent to have traffic signals automatically show a pedestrian crossing signal so residents would not have to touch the button requesting a signal. Public comments were split on people for and against it, with those opposed arguing the action would be a waste of money and cause additional traffic congestion.
Public Works director Leon Firsht said that changing traffic signals would require some staff time and would also require a contractor because staff are not the ones who do the programming for signals. He also said wait times at lights for drivers could increase an additional 18 seconds to the 12 seconds on average currently.
“That’s the tradeoff,” said Parent, adding that a “modest amount” of additional waiting is worth it to keep people out walking around during the pandemic from touching the same button that many others touch throughout the day. “I think it’s a legitimate public safety concern.”
Parent said that in his neighborhood, pedestrian traffic has increased because people are out walking the sidewalks during the day while they are unable to work at their offices or places of work.
Council member Bill Baber added that the action would also be consistent with the city’s Vision Zero plan to improve pedestrian safety.
The council, after hearing from Firsht that only a few lights would be able to be changed in a week, eventually voted to approve changing signals at high traffic areas using the best data available to determine where the most need is.
Dr. Weber then raised concerns about the city’s parks, which despite closing the parking lots, remain open for residents to walk through if they are following the county’s social distancing orders.
Humora said the parks are monitored closely and remain open as “a green space for people to go” during quarantine.
Weber replied that keeping parks open when other cities in the state have closed them is “not necessarily the wisest idea at this point … from a medical standpoint.”
In public comments, resident Bonnie Baranoff thanked the city for keeping park restrooms open so homeless population can access the sinks and toilets, which lead to a discussion on whether the city could close the parks but keep the bathrooms open.
Mayor Arapostathis and Police Chief Walt Vasquez commented that it would be difficult to enforce a park closure.
After more discussion, the council voted to close only those parks that have a fence that can keep the public out — MacArthur Park and Sunshine Park. The parks that do not have fencing will be only open to those who follow county social distancing rules — gatherings of more than one person, with the exception of those who live under the same roof, are not allowed to congregate in public.
The next La Mesa City Council meeting will be held on April 28 at 6 p.m. It will again be held online and can be viewed live on Cox Cable Channel 24 (within La Mesa City limits), AT&T U-Verse Channel 99 (in the San Diego Region), the city’s website (cityoflamesa.us) or Facebook Live (facebook.com/lamesaca). Members of the public who wish to make public comments may submit their comments by email to be read aloud at the Council meeting by the City Clerk. Email comments must be submitted to the City Clerk at firstname.lastname@example.org by 4 p.m. the day of the Council meeting and be no more than 300 words.
— Reach editor Jeff Clemetson at email@example.com.