NOTE: This article has been updated to reflect that firearms are excluded from the mayoral power, "To prohibit or regulate the possession, sale or use of explosives, gasoline or other flammable liquids, or dangerous weapons of any kind."
MILTON, Ga. — Milton has declared a local emergency in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
At a special called City Council meeting Friday, the City Council passed a measure that gives Mayor Joe Lockwood additional control over how the city can respond to COVID-19 and permits him to loosen some of the city’s current regulations over the next 30 days.
Lockwood said the emergency declaration is not a power grab but a way for the city to act quickly amid the pandemic.
“It’s just to allow me to make quick decisions on a safety basis,” Lockwood said after the meeting. “The key intent is not a grab for mayoral power, but to be able to act in an emergency that would make a positive difference, versus waiting for public meetings and what-not.”
The council considered eight items included in the declaration, which was written into the city’s emergency management codes when Milton incorporated. Several of the powers granted to Lockwood were approved, but one was slashed from the list.
Under the special order, Lockwood now has the right to act unilaterally to enforce any of the eight powers, but his decisions could be challenged by the City Council and are subject to the Georgia Constitution and U.S. Constitution.
The emergency period can be extended the 30 days or be terminated early. The city passed a resolution at the March 16 City Council meeting that suspended public hearings and put some zoning and permitting processes on hold, but the emergency declaration supersedes that document and restarts the 30-day time period.
With the emergency declaration, Lockwood will assume direct control over the city’s emergency management resources and can enact a curfew, order the closing of any business and close access to public areas. Lockwood also has authority to prohibit or regulate the possession of explosive or dangerous weapons — excluding firearms — and to take any emergency action deemed necessary to protect the city and its residents.
He can also act to loosen some of the city’s regulations already in place. For instance, several cities in Georgia have permitted businesses with alcohol pouring licenses to provide to-go alcohol sales.
Some took to social media or emailed the council to share their concerns over two of the powers listed in the emergency ordinance. Causing the most commotion was the power for Milton to seize, use temporarily or condemn a property to protect the public.
While the language of the item raised plenty of eyebrows, City Attorney Ken Jarrard said any decision to do so would be bound under state and federal laws.
The council did not approve that power at the meeting, but Lockwood could still act unilaterally to enforce it. Lockwood said he did not foresee any situation that would call for that action, however.
The declaration also included added language to one item that had some residents concerned: Lockwood’s power to sell, lend, give or distribute property or supplies. The city clarified the provision only included city-owned property or supplies.
Jarrard said sometimes governments are better suited to stockpile items like food or bottled water.
“We are not talking about stockpiling staplers, we are talking about things people need to live,” he said.
Lockwood said he has been in contact with fellow mayors in North Fulton to ensure that no city is making emergency declarations “in a vacuum.” Any action taken by Lockwood will immediately be communicated to the City Council, the city manager, city attorney and residents.
For now, Lockwood said the city is considering allowing restaurants with alcohol pouring licenses the ability to sell alcohol to-go. He said there has not been a decision on Milton shutting down restaurant dining rooms. Many in the area have voluntarily closed or are only offering food to-go, he added.
Lockwood also shared his support for the city’s businesses and residents that have been impacted by COVID-19.
“I am certainly very sympathetic to all our citizens and businesses,” he said. “There is no telling what kind of long-term impact this could have.”