Jerry Merrill 2015.jpg

Jerry Merrill

Support Local Journalism

With the Thanksgiving holiday still ruminating in my heart and stomach, I would like to express my sincere thanks to my family and my community for support they have given me and the city council in this difficult time we are experiencing. As mayor, I feel a deep responsibility to try to find the balance between public safety and personal rights and responsibilities. Nobody that I know is enjoying the constant reminders to wash your hands, social distance and wear a mask. I didn’t like when my Mom used to harp on me to “eat your vegetables," but now I realize it was because she loved me and wanted the best outcome for my health. We long for the days when we can feel comfortable shaking hands, visiting and laughing in groups together, enjoying ballgames together and even (heaven forbid) giving big hugs without unknowingly sharing a bug with someone else inadvertently.

I would like to respond to the comments made by Mr. Ron Nate recently, not by way of argument, but just to explain the thought process we went through in proposing a mask mandate with consequences for citizens and businesses.

On Friday Nov. 13th, Governor Little made his announcement that Idaho was moving back into Stage Two of the Idaho Rebounds public health order. On Monday the 16th, city staff met to review the governor’s order and what it meant to us. At the same time, in the previous two weeks we had benefitted from a downtrend in our active COVID cases in Madison county (we had gone down to 108 cases) but since then we were experiencing a new spike in cases as were many western and other cities, especially university cities, and Madison County had climbed back up to 240 active cases by Nov. 17th.

We have tracked the numbers carefully and made efforts to inform the community of “the score” so to speak in our “United We Stand” team effort to voluntarily beat the COVID 19 virus but with rising numbers and the governor’s new order, we were concerned that our community effort might not be enough to stem the rising tide. With great concern that these rising tides could mean that the governor impose further restrictions on our community or that the university students could be sent home, both of which would be catastrophic for our economy, I sought to look for ways for our community to act and not be acted upon. City staff met again Tuesday Nov. 17th and were made aware that a few business folks had expressed the idea that if we had a city ordinance that had more enforcement in it, that it would help them in their asking people to wear a mask in their place of business to protect their employees and other customers. We had also had some employees of businesses contact us confidentially to tell us that they were concerned that their employers were not enforcing the mask mandate already ordered for Madison county by Eastern Idaho Public Health Agency. They didn’t want to be infected or be quarantined because of an exposure and have to miss work but were afraid to take it up with their employer for fear of a repercussion in their job.

We knew of an ordinance passed by the City of Driggs in July that had enforcement clauses in it and reportedly was working for them. The mayor of Driggs indicated that they had not levied any fines on citizens or businesses and he had several businesses thank him for implementing the ordinance because of the help it gave them in asking folks to wear a mask in their place of business. It seemed to us that their feeling was that it was helpful in keeping their COVID count under better control and thus helping them to keep their businesses open and operating as normally as possible. With our rapidly escalating numbers at the time, we felt that it would be good to consider this ordinance right away rather than wait another two weeks for the next council meeting. By the time we reviewed the ordinance, drafted it for Rexburg and had it ready to go, it was late afternoon. The suggestion was made that if this is something we are willing to do, the council should consider suspending the rules and considering it third read to get the ordinance in place right away, otherwise would it really do any good to wait four more weeks to consider it second and third read as is the normal process with a new ordinance. The ordinance proposal was added to the agenda with the stipulation of needing approval to add it to the agenda by vote of the council at the start of the meeting as allowed by Idaho law. This is common practice in cities and counties all over the country when something comes up suddenly that is felt to be important enough to do that. We felt that this was one of those times.

One of the things I have learned from this experience is that I need to be a better communicator. I apologize to those who were standing outside in the cold. Governor Little’s Stage Two order had put more restrictive limits on gatherings and we were doing our best to respect that order by limiting the number of people inside the building. We had two items on our agenda specifically listed as “Public Hearings” and we allowed people who were specific to those public hearings inside to ask questions and testify for or against the proposed actions. Unless required by Idaho statute, general ordinance discussions do not require formal public hearings. That was the case with this ordinance. My council members and I had already received hundreds of emails, phone calls, and visits by concerned citizens and business owners and I felt we had plenty of feedback to have a productive discussion and to debate the issue before us. My city clerk announced to the gathered crowd that those who were in attendance to testify in one of the two public hearings would be allowed in for those hearings. My mistake was, and I realize now, that I assumed people knew the difference between a scheduled public hearing and a general ordinance discussion. I should have made it clear to the folks outside that this would not be a public hearing on the ordinance because we felt we already had a plethora of community feedback. I did take a call from Mr. Nate before the meeting started. He said he wanted to come in and address the council personally. I informed him of the vast amount of feedback we had already received and that we wouldn’t be taking more comments that night. I assumed, apparently wrongly so, that he would inform the people there with him of our procedure for that meeting so they would not have to stand out in the cold and could watch the proceedings from the comfort of their homes online. Mr. Nate states that people were “upset” that the city council was sitting inside “blithely considering their rights." That being said, I am willing to take the blame for not being more specific at the start of the meeting to let people know that there was not going to be further public comment. I can assure you that my council members do not "blithely” consider anything that comes before them, especially something that they are well aware is controversial. These six people are truly dedicated servants of the people and they lose sleep over many difficult issues we deal with… this definitely being one of those.

Mr. Nate accuses us of wrongdoing by allowing a hospital administrator to speak about the mask ordinance. This is not true. I asked Mr. McBride to give us an update on the situation at Madison Memorial Hospital and the other hospitals in the region. We have long tried to consider not only the active case count of COVID 19 in our county, but also the situation of the medical facilities in the area, especially the ICU capacities. We felt that was important information to have in addition to the feedback we had received from citizens.

Mr. Nate also accuses the council of making “decisions in the dark," “denying public access," and considering an “unconstitutional ordinance," none of which are true. First, a specific health order is not an “unconstitutional mandate” and given his previous experience in the Idaho Legislature, Mr. Nate should be aware of the delineation between open meeting laws and public hearings. Open meeting laws assure the public that they can see what is happening in government meetings. The online venue that we have provided for people to view our council meeting is considered sufficient to satisfy Idaho open meeting laws currently and our analytics show that we had over 1500 people watching our meeting online on November 18th. We will be more than happy to open our doors and allow people into our meetings when the law allows. Scheduled Public Hearings, on the other hand, are held specifically for certain actions and citizens are invited to participate in testifying about the proposed action.

Mr. Nate states that “civility is a two way street” and that “I know the people who want to be heard will be respectful of those efforts.” It is the mayor’s prerogative to allow or not allow public comment on issues that are not public hearings and we often do. In this situation, besides the fact that we had already received volumes of public comment and were operating under the Governor’s limited gathering order, another factor weighed into my decision to not receive public comment at this meeting. In July, we had a similar proposal and we did allow the public to come inside and testify. Many of those in attendance on Nov. 18th were also in attendance previously, Mr. Nate being one. That meeting did not go well as there were several times when I had to stop the meeting and ask for members of the audience to conduct themselves with decorum and civility. My pleas were largely ignored as they made catcalls at, and shouted down people as they tried to express an opposite viewpoint on the issue. To me, that is not so much “an impolite response to government actions” as it is a disrespect for fellow citizens who have a different opinion, and I don’t believe that is acceptable behavior in a city council meeting where everyone should have a fair chance to be heard and not feel bullied and made fun of. I believe that questioning government is good when we can transcend the vitriol of partisan views and work together to create peace and prosperity for our community.

Jerry Merrill is mayor of Rexburg