MINOT, N.D. — Earlier this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic descended on us, various executive branch leaders like mayors and governors began to invoke executive powers so that they could make policy to deal with what was, at the time, an emergent situation.
The thing about emergency powers is that they're supposed to be for emergencies — times when the usual process for making policy isn't practical.
Is that still the case?
The pandemic has been with us for months. It's less an emergency than a status quo. Our governing bodies like city commissions and legislatures have taken steps so that they can meet and do their jobs safely.
It's time we put the emergency powers back in the box.
That very debate is happening in Fargo right now, and I hope elected officials across our region are paying attention.
Last night, two city commission members, Tony Gehrig and Dave Piepkorn, voted to remove Mayor Tim Mahoney's emergency powers authority. The other three commission members, which includes Mahoney and Commissioner John Strand, voted to keep them in place.
Before the vote, Strand and Gehrig engaged in some verbal fisticuffs in which the latter made a powerful case for restoring the normal process of policymaking. After being accused by Strand of not taking the pandemic seriously, Gehrig argued that the commissioners need to take back control of how the city is governed.
"To have the mayor run the city like it's flooding is not appropriate. We are disenfranchised as commissioners," Gehrig said.
"We are finding out about major decisions in the newspaper," he continued.
Gehrig is referencing Mahoney's recent decision to institute some new restrictions on bars and restaurants, something which apparently wasn't discussed with commissioners beforehand.
Even though Mahoney currently has emergency powers, is there a good reason he couldn't have scheduled a meeting with his commissioners and discussed it?
Do they not deserve some notice, at least?
This may seem like a hyperlocal issue specific to Fargo, but it is (or should be) an important debate playing out all over the state and all over our country.
How long should government executives like mayors governors continue to have emergency powers? At what point is it appropriate to return to the regular, inclusive process of making policy? Especially how hugely consequential many of these policy choices made during the pandemic are.
Minnesota's state government has been doing things the right way. Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, has been granted emergency powers, but the state's lawmakers have met a half-dozen times since the beginning of the pandemic to vote on whether to allow those powers to continue.
The latest vote happened about a week ago.
That is the appropriate way to do things. Walz has the authority to wield his emergency powers, but he also knows that he's accountable to a group of people who could take them away.
Those sort of checks and balances are a necessity, even amid a pandemic.
Here in North Dakota, Gov. Doug Burgum has been using his executive powers also, but our state Legislature has refused to meet in executive session, choosing instead to hide from the responsibility to govern during the pandemic.
That is not the appropriate way to do things, which is no knock on Burgum. He's a fine leader, but our state has multiple branches of government for a reason.
COVID-19 is still very much with us, and our society still needs to be on a pandemic footing, but when it comes to how we are governed, it's high time we got back to business as usual.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at email@example.com.