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Flagstaff City Council updates COVID policy during tense special meeting

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Screenshot

A screenshot from Thursday's special Flagstaff City Council meeting.

It took a while for the conversation to turn productive during Thursday’s special city council Meeting. In its earliest minutes, the meeting amounted to little more than Mayor Paul Deasy and Councilmember Austin Aslan sparring over personal attacks and Deasy’s recent positive COVID-19 test.

A semblance of order began to take place as Deasy moved the conversation to the policy agenda items. At this point, City Attorney Sterling Solomon chimed in.

“I think it’s very important for us all to remember the decorum necessary to conduct our meetings,” Solomon said. “We’re here to talk about Council meeting protocol. The fact that [Deasy] tested positive is pertinent and relevant to that, so comments about that obviously are part of that discussion. However, where they stray into personal attacks, or don’t have to do with Council meeting protocol, that wouldn’t be appropriate for tonight. I just want to make sure everybody understood that.”

Solomon’s reminder would not be the last time the special meeting turned to the subject of decorum and personal attacks. Squabbles popped up intermittently throughout the meeting. At one point, Councilmember Jim McCarthy addressed the disruptions.

“I’d like to make a quick point of decorum,” McCarthy said. “When the mayor was criticized, he took the opportunity to defend himself in quite a bit of detail -- which was fine with me. But he cut off one of our other councilmembers when he tried to defend himself. I find that disturbing.”

When the floor was opened to the public, commentators addressed Deasy’s conduct.

“It was a true missed opportunity to be transparent,” said Cristy Zeller, referring to Deasy’s in-person attendance of Tuesday’s city council meeting after his known COVID exposures. “We’re talking about a pattern of behavior that does not center the community, but instead your own individual needs and interests. I continued to be dismayed by the lack of integrity shown by our mayor. It is unacceptable that our mayor does not walk his own talk.”

Deasy said he had disclosed an exposure to positive cases in his home during the Dec. 28 city council meeting, and had gone above and beyond CDC guidelines since that exposure.

Despite the tensions, the meeting did produce some policy decisions. First, Council decided that due to the rapid spread of the omicron variant, the Jan. 11, 18 and 25 city council meetings will take place virtually with no in-person attendance at city hall or the council chambers. Members of the public will be able to stream these meetings through the City of Flagstaff website using the “Live Conference Room” tab. Members of the public will be able to give verbal comments during these meetings.

Secondly, Council addressed how the city should best assist Coconino County in the distribution of COVID testing. During this discussion, Deasy argued that given City Hall’s successful dispersal of over 2,000 KN95 masks in the past week, city sites, potentially staffed by volunteers, could be engaged as test distribution sites. This proposal earned pushback from other councilmembers who argued that the city lacked the resources and expertise to effectively serve as test distributors.

“We are not the Health Department,” said Councilmember Miranda Sweet. “I don’t know how far we should be offering assistance. We are already short-staffed, and we are talking about bringing potential positive cases into our circle.”

“The county has the experience and the authority on these matters,” McCarthy added. “I’m fine with letting them use a parking lot at a city facility so people don’t have to drive out to the county fairground, but I think that’s the limit of our involvement.”

This perspective was echoed by Kim Musselmn, director of Coconino County Health and Human Services.

“I want to be very clear; we are not asking, as the county, for city property to be able to set up a county operation and distribute tests," she said. "We have lots of operations set up, and our staff is completely maxed out in terms of things that we are doing. And we're going to continue to do them well.”

Musselman added that tests were very limited, so increased efforts of distribution may not be supported by available stock.

“We just got notice today that half of what we ordered, we're not going to get filled on Monday,” she said. “The county is not looking for other locations where we’re going to stand up other testing sites. We’ve got enough going on.”

Council eventually decided to assist the county by moving forward with a recommendation from Acting City Manager Heidi Hansen.

“I would like to offer that we have a Flagstaff local ‘My Actions Matter’ campaign that is ongoing,” she said. “Our social media campaign could be a resource for the county to get the message out when they have tests available.”

The city’s involvement in distributing COVID tests was slated for re-evaluation in the coming weeks as tests become more widely available. In the meantime, city hall will continue to distribute KN95 masks, and city council meetings will remain fully virtual for at least three weeks.

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