Local business owner Charlie Giguere speaks Tuesday during a Waterville City Council meeting at Mid-Maine Technical Center in Waterville. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

WATERVILLE — The City Council voted 6-0 Tuesday night to declare a public emergency and create a new subcommittee that could meet with 24 hours’ notice to respond quickly to measures needed amid the spread of the coronavirus.

The vote came after City Solicitor William A. Lee III determined a COVID-19 Task Force, comprised of city councilors and the mayor, on Monday illegally ordered restaurants and bars to close. Lee said such an action may be taken only by the City Council via passage of a city ordinance — and even that authority is questionable.

Meanwhile, Gov. Janet Mills on Wednesday ordered all restaurants and bars closed but said they may offer takeout and delivery services.

Waterville’s new subcommittee on Wednesday met for about two hours. Erik Thomas, who serves as panel co-spokesman with Mayor Nick Isgro, said a press conference for people to ask questions will be scheduled Thursday morning at a time and place to be announced.

The subcommittee decided, in the interest of public health, to suspend Waterville’s plastic bag ban for 90 days and urge that people don’t bring reusable plastic bags to stores, according to a press release from the subcommittee. If they do bring bags to stores, the committee asks they be cleaned between uses. Thomas said stores may now use plastic bags for food purchases.

Other items the panel announced Wednesday: supply chains to grocery stores are strong and there are no concerns about items not being available; those stores will reduce hours to enhance sanitary procedures; local food banks are stocked but Sacred Heart Soup Kitchen is closed indefinitely; the city has compiled a list of local restaurants so as to improve communication with them as city policies evolve; and the city is updating contact information for other city businesses and if they want to update their information, they may do so at http://www.waterville-me.gov/fire/emergency-contact/.

The city also will enforce state-mandated closures, according to the committee. MaineGeneral will test people for the virus at a drive-up station outside the emergency department at Thayer Center for Health in Waterville, and Northern Light Inland Hospital, also in Waterville, plans to do drive-up testing in the parking lot at Faith Evangelical Free Church on Kennedy Memorial Drive, though a start date has not yet been determined.

At the City Council meeting Tuesday night, several business owners blasted task force members, saying their decision to close bars and restaurants Monday night was too hasty, poorly communicated and vague.

Isgro and Thomas, who also is City Chairman in addition to being co-spokesman for the subcommittee, apologized for the way the decision was communicated and said the group was trying to protect the health and safety of the public amid a rapidly developing crisis.

“I’d rather be called a fool down the road and be embarrassed than have half my community dead because I didn’t take it seriously,” Isgro said.

Councilors voted to authorize establishing the council subcommittee to replace the task force, allowing the city to act swiftly.

The panel has power to meet with various government officials, including the city manager, police and fire chiefs, superintendent of schools, and representatives of chamber of commerce organizations, local educational institutions, hospitals, emergency services and groups willing to help, according to the ordinance the council voted on Tuesday. As part of the ordinance, the subcommittee is authorized to spend up to $150,000 from city reserves and make other decisions necessary to protect the public health and welfare.

Councilors voted to create the subcommittee after Lee, the city solicitor, issued his opinion earlier Tuesday when learning the task force ordered bars and restaurants shut down. Lee wrote in a memo to the city that he consulted with Maine Municipal Association’s Legal Services concerning the “novel legal issues involved.”

“The Task Force has no legal authority to close bars and restaurants,” Lee wrote in his memo. “If any action to close bars and restaurants, or place restrictions upon them, can be taken, it can only be done by the city council with the passage of an ordinance. Only an emergency ordinance can be passed with one reading.”

But Lee noted that the legality of the council to order closures of bars and restaurants is questionable.

“Any such action at the local, rather than the state, level may well invite legal action by affected businesses. We have no charter language granting this type of authority.”

Restaurant and bar owners who attended Tuesday’s City Council meeting objected to the way they learned they had been ordered to close — by seeing a post on Thomas’ personal Facebook page.

The restaurant and bar owners said they want to do what is right for the public health and safety, but they were blindsided by the way the mandate was communicated.

The Waterville City Council takes a vote Tuesday during its meeting at Mid-Maine Technical Center in Waterville. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

“I read Bill Lee’s recap of what happened over the course of the last 24 hours and you guys should be embarrassed,” Silver Street Tavern owner Charlie Giguere said.

Eric Veilleux, who owns Eric’s restaurant on College Avenue with his sister, Cyndie Cote, agreed that to stop the pandemic, businesses must close. He, however, urged the council to communicate with other communities and have “everyone on board” when announcing such decisions. Giguere said that restaurants in Winslow and Fairfield were open, but not those in Waterville.

Thomas said he did not go into the task force meeting Monday with a plan to close restaurants. He said the president was on television at the time, delivering news of the pandemic.

“Honestly, we reacted to the information that came in while we were sitting in the meeting,” Thomas said. “I apologize the way it was communicated.”

The Waterville City Council holds a meeting Tuesday at Mid-Maine Technical Center in Waterville. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

Cote said she was upset Monday because her staff was in tears.

“I understand the importance of what you folks were trying to do, but I do agree with my brother that everyone has to do it, everywhere,” she said.

Resident Norton Webber, a former restaurant owner, said he thought what the task force did was “absurd” and he felt badly for the restaurant owners.

“I was sick to my stomach,” he said.

Councilor Rick Foss, R-Ward 5, who also is a task force member, said he apologizes for the way the closure was communicated, but he did not take what the task force did lightly.

“I don’t want an Italy coming to America, let alone our city of Waterville,” he said.

The new subcommittee, appointed by Thomas, who is a member, also includes Foss and Councilor Claude Francke, D-Ward 6.

Chad Partridge, owner of Cappza’s Pizza, said he hopes councilors consider the value restaurants have as a food supply for the community and he believes they are safer than or as safe as grocery stores.

“We’re here because we care about the community and we care about our employees,” Partridge said. “How it unfolded last night was absolutely irresponsible.”

Isgro said the city has a vulnerable population, including those who are elderly. Everyone, he said, needs to work together going forward.

“We are a place that could go south, real fast,” he said.

He acknowledged that “we messed up in how we did things last night.”

“Erik and I are official spokesmen together, but nothing will be communicated until it comes out of City Hall,” he said. “We will share information once it comes out of City Hall.”

Thomas and Isgro issued a press release Monday evening from the task force that said all bars and restaurants were to close immediately and that City Hall would be closed to the public until further notice.

Lee’s memo says the task force has no authority to make any decisions for the city unless the council authorizes it:

“Such delegated authority must be narrow in scope with specific criteria to be found by the Task Force before a decision can be made. The Task Force and its membership must also be determined by the council. The Task Force then also becomes subject to public meeting requirements.

“If the concern is that the four day notice requirement for council meetings does not allow the city to act quickly enough, the council could pass an emergency ordinance to allow the mayor or several councilors to call a meeting on, say, 24-hour notice. That would be much simpler than trying to delegate authority to a task force and would avoid possible attacks on the legality of its actions.”

An amendment the council approved Tuesday night to the emergency ordinance says meetings may be called on 24-hour notice.

Lee’s memo, issued Tuesday morning, also says he heard there may be an attempt to call a council meeting Tuesday afternoon:

“The legality of such a meeting is doubtful, at best. We have a four-day notice requirement, and there are no exigent circumstances for such a meeting. A regularly scheduled council meeting is already set for 7 p.m. tonight. The public is entitled to advance notice of public meetings, which will not occur if a meeting is suddenly scheduled for this afternoon.”

Thomas indicated Monday in a message to City Manager Mike Roy that he planned to make a motion to “waive cloture” to add the item that gives the subcommittee authority over certain decisions regarding the city’s response to the virus.

In the note, Thomas said: “We will have to establish guidelines for a mechanism for council review moving forward, but we can’t wait to have the council vote on every action agreed to by the task force in the meantime. The situation is changing by the hour, and we need to be able to react quickly.”

The text of the note was included in an email sent out Monday by Isgro.

More than 20 people, spaced in every other chair or wider, attended the council meeting, which was held at at Mid-Day Cafe in the Mid-Maine Technical Center off Messalonskee Avenue — a different location than usual because the Chace Community Forum downtown now limits access because of concerns over COVID-19.

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