Stillwater leaders upset about bill that takes health emergency powers away from city officials

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt speaks during a news conference Thursday in Oklahoma City. The reopening of Oklahoma businesses will continue Friday, May 15, 2020, with stand-alone bars, funerals, weddings and organized sports activities resuming. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

The Oklahoma House of Representatives passed a bill Thursday that would shift authority once granted to local officials during health emergencies to the governor. 

The House approved Senate Bill 1102, 53-44, sending the bill back to the Oklahoma Senate to be voted on.

Rep. Trish Ranson (D-District 34) and John Talley (R-District 33) voted no on the bill. Rep. Ty Burns (R-District 35) voted yes on the bill. The three represent Stillwater municipalities.

Ranson said there were two main reasons she voted no on the bill, including how it takes away control in a pandemic from local governments.

“I voted no because (the bill) takes away local control,” Ranson said. “So mayors are out of that whole equation, and as we have found out, our mayors are a very big piece in how we deal with a pandemic, like we have just experienced.”

If the bill passes, mayors will have to ask permission from the governor to get involved.

“By cutting them out, we lose the strength in the situation,” Ranson said.

Stillwater Mayor Will Joyce said local governments, in general, are able to respond more quickly and more appropriately to local circumstances.

“Different locations are affected in different ways,” Joyce said. “There are different factors that go into how they want to install it, and so local governments need the ability to act in the way that is most appropriate to their situation.”

Talley said this has been how several mayors and city managers have reacted to the bill, and he agrees with them.

“They felt like it was infringing on city governments and taking away some of the power of the city governments in dealing with emergency health care problems,” Talley said.

Stillwater’s first proclamation declaring state of emergency in regard to the coronavirus pandemic took effect March 16. Gov. Kevin Stitt declared a health emergency in all 77 Oklahoma counties April 2.

The speed in which this amendment to SB 1102 has been added has also brought up concerns from government officials.

Ranson said the bill had been reworded within the last two weeks.

“Any legislation that is put together that quickly and is a knee-jerk reaction, I vote no on,” Ranson said. “I feel like it needs to have gone through all the steps in order for it to be valid legislation going forward.”

Joyce said Ranson contacted him about the amendment because it was not listed anywhere. It was originally a bill about deferred prosecution for some criminal offenses. 

“No one knew this bill was being discussed at all,” Joyce said. “To me it is a bad way to go about adopting complicated legislation to do it at the last minute without any input from the stakeholders who might be affected by it. The fact that it is even possible in our state legislature is very concerning.

“In a city council meeting, we can’t discuss or vote on an issue that has not been listed on a public agenda several days before the meeting, which is how it is supposed to happen. We are supposed to let everybody know that a topic may be discussed and if we do not list it in the agenda properly, we can’t discuss or vote on it. To have the state legislature able to introduce and approve a bill in a couple of hours with no public input or notice is appalling.”

Joyce has asked for citizens to reach out to reach out to state Sen. Tom Dugger to vote no on the bill. Joyce has also put in a request for a no vote on the bill, as well.

Dugger said it is an easy no vote for him.

“I think it is one of the more simple bills that we are going to look at because I am very interested, whenever possible, to recognize the city’s responsibility and try to help them as much as possible,” he said. “I like to give the authority to the city.”

Dugger said he had only seen excerpts of the amended bill as of 7:45 a.m., and is not sure if the Senate will get to vote on it (Friday.)

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