Emergency ordinance suspends deadlines for city action on applications

In its first special meeting using an interactive online application, Martinez City Council has suspended deadlines for city action on applications.

The Council unanimously passed the emergency ordinance Wednesday, the inaugural use of the online meeting app Zoom that allowed the public to join and speak.

“The ordinance does nothing more than extend timelines for action,” Christina Ratcliffe, Community and Economic Development director, wrote in a report sent to the Council by City Manager Eric Figueroa.

Applicants who decide they need more time to deal with their applications would not be affected, said Senior Assistant Attorney Veronica Nebb, since they always could take as much time as they needed.

It does release city staff and governing panels from deadlines during the emergency situations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic declaration of emergency, and the suspension ends when the emergency order is lifted.

Ratcliffe explained in the report that because of the emergency declaration, most city employees are working remotely as much as possible. That limits how much time they can spend with applicants or advisory panel members.

The declaration also has hampered public participation, since it limits how many people can attend a meeting, and remote hearings “do not support robust public participation and discussion,” especially about potentially controversial items.

Two other matters also received unanimous approval from the Council.

One authorized an emergency suspension of utility penalties and termination of service.

Finance Director David Glasser wrote in a report to the Council that the temporary waiver of late payment penalties and suspension of disconnections of water and sewer service was needed because residents are ordered to shelter in place at home.

The order, issued in hopes of reducing the severity of the pandemic, is jeopardizing many customers’ economic stability as businesses either downsize or close under the emergency order.

The suspension is dated March 1 through June 1, and if needed, the Council could extend the waiver. Glasser said the city might be able to receive federal reimbursement for lost revenue.

The Council agreed to extend negotiations between the city and Richfield Real Estate Corporation for the potential purchase of 297 acres known as Alhambra Highlands in hopes of preserving it from development and keeping as natural open space land long associated with environmentalist John Muir.

However, the negotiations extension allows Richfield to process its final map and take other actions so its development project approvals would not lapse.

During his portion of the meeting, Martinez Police Chief Manjit Sappal advised the Council that while the Martinez Detention Facility normally accepts those arrested by law enforcement agencies throughout Contra Costa County, the actions taken to minimize the jail’s population is not resulting in other departments leaving those charged on Martinez streets.

Instead, most are given citations rather than being taken into custody unless they are suspected of a violent felony. The citation cases are handed to District Attorney Diana Becton’s office to process, he said and at this time, courts are closed.

Sappal said residents are reporting those who are violating the statewide shelter in place orders, but said at this time his agency has not seen a rise in domestic violence complaints. He urged anyone feeling stressed enough to commit such acts to step outside and take a break or call 2-1-1 to seek help.

Both he and Figueroa urged residents to comply with the shelter in place order provisions. “We need to do what we can to flatten the curve,” Figueroa said. “People need to take this seriously.”

While the Council has been meeting by teleconferences in compliance with emergency order restrictions, this was its first try at a Zoom interactive session.

“This is going to be an interesting experiment,” Mayor Rob Schroder said at its start.

He anticipated some of the minor rough spots that cropped up. Some members had been muted at first. Later on, Councilmember Noralea Gipner’s screen temporarily froze. An advocate for the homeless population, she later announced placement of several portable toilets and handwashing stations and the soon arrival of four more from Contra Costa County.

“We’ll be doing this a lot,” the mayor said about the interactive online meeting. “We’ll get better at it.”

 

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