Portsmouth City Council voted in favor of mandatory masks in the city. Despite Mayor Kevin E. Johnson’s objections and a warning from the Health Department that they lack the manpower to enforce the rules, Portsmouth City Council took up the issue at Monday’s meeting.
Under the advice of the City Solicitor John R. Haas and the Portsmouth City Health Department, the meeting was closed to the public, though it was live-streamed on Facebook.
Mayor Johnson did not want to vote on the issue as the ordinance had not gone through the proper channels and been considered in conference or placed on council agenda. “What’s the purpose in a conference agenda if we can just willy-nilly add things?
Solicitor Hass said that given the pressing natures of the question and the fact that all members of the council were already familiar with the ordinance, he saw no legal issues with voting.
Johnson was worried that since the meeting was closed, citizens did not have enough opportunity to express their opinions of the mask ordinance. “How are we being transparent? How are we giving our citizens an opportunity to speak?”
Solicitor Hass said the issue of transparency was up to the council. “I’m not arguing a position. I’m just saying that I don’t have a problem from a legal standpoint if you decide to do it. If you don’t want to do it, that’s fine, too. I don’t have a position on the merits of the mask ordinance. It’s council’s pleasure.”
The Mayor said he still worried about violating the rules. He pulled several masks from his jacket pockets and put them on the table in front of him. “I’m not here to debate masks. I’m fine with masks. Johnson pulled multiple masks out of his pockets. “We can debate all of the yays and nays for masks. Right now, we’re debating procedure.”
However, all of the other four council members present did not agree with Mayor Johnson. Councilpersons Dunne, McManus, Gordon, and Martell were in favor of voting on the issue. Councilman Lowe was not present.
Health Department Doesn’t Have Manpower to Enforce
Council Clerk Diana Ratliff read comments submitted by citizens. There were passionate arguments both for and against mandatory masks to fight COVID-19.
Belinda Leslie from the Portsmouth City Health Department told the council, “While the Health Department fully agrees with the mandatory wearing of masks, we do not have the manpower to enforce. It needs to be enforced by the police. We are happy to help but cannot do it alone.”
Shawnee State President Jeff Bauer called to express his support for the resolution earlier in the day.
Four To One
At 40 minutes into the meeting, the council stopped to go into executive session to discuss another matter. When they returned, council voted four to one to waive the required three reading of the ordinance. Mayor Johnson was the only ‘no’ vote.
Johnson said that comments from citizens and businesses had been just about half and half. “It’s been said that I’m not in favor of mandatory masks. I’m not opposed to wearing masks. I’m opposed to the way we are handling this. If we wanted to pass this, there are ways to do that. But just to introduce an ordinance the night of a council meeting that those who elect us, those who pay the taxes, don’t have the opportunity to speak… It doesn’t matter what I think, it matters what our constituents think.”
Johnson voted no on the ordinance. The other four council members present voted in favor of the ordinance.
In a rare move, the agenda and ordinances were not provided ahead of time from the Clerk’s office. It has been customary for the clerk to issue that information to the press ahead of time so they may prepare questions and research items. In this case, the wording of the ordinance has yet to be made public.
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