Smile Politely

On city governance and the Emergency Order in Champaign

On the morning of Friday March 13, 2020 — just yesterday, which feels like a year ago somehow — the Champaign City Council met to discuss and vote on an emergency order. The order would grant both Mayor Deb Feinen and City Manager Dorothy David broad decisive powers, in case of an emergency, with regards to the current COVID-19 pandemic crisis. It passed unanimously. That order grants the City Manager the power to negotiate with unions, for example, without having to enter into collective bargaining meetings; it gives the Mayor the swift power to restrict the sale of alcohol, close bars and restaurants, curtail utilities, impose a curfew, and yes, even perhaps restrict the sale of guns and ammunition.

I deeply commend this action, as it represents the very sort of governmental decisiveness that we should have gotten from Washington a month ago. That the Mayor and her staff, in partnership with the City Manager and her staff, were willing to go to council with almost no delay, in the face of a rapidly growing crisis, showcases the sort of courageous leadership we need right now, and all of us should be proud.

To be clear, this emergency order was written into the city code in 2006, when neither Mayor Feinen or Manager David were in office. The only thing that happened yesterday was simply the two of them asking the council for the ability to execute it, and certain measures, if and when, they might be deemed necessary.

This is a practical and wise move, designed to allow for swift reaction to potentially life-threatening emergencies. There is very little time to debate and negotiate intricacies in a crisis. This is part of democracy; we vote for people that we ultimately must trust to manage the worst moments, not congratulate themselves on what they perceive to be their best moments.

Some of the more reactionary and incompetent people of our community did not respond well. The General Manager of Big Grove Tavern, Scott McIntosh, was quoted in the The News-Gazette as saying that “the city could have better communicated its plans with the ordinance.”

“A lot of folks I work with or who patronize our venue were very alarmed last night that there’s already an open discussion of seizing property and shutting off water,” he said. “Prioritizing the community communication needs to be critical for us, both as citizens and as workers who work with you, as opposed to inflame fears right out of the gate.”

Nothing could be further from the truth here; Mr. McIntosh’s comment is deeply irresponsible. My initial reaction was of concern, as well. But it took me exactly five minutes to distill the veracity of what was actually happening, and the reasons why. Upon quick reflection, it was clear that the government was doing its job, and doing it diligently, and with caution and consideration for all of us.

I will not point you in the direction of any local commenting platforms wherein the lives of Mayor Feinen or Manager David, or their children’s lives, are being threatened. It is not worth it for you to read any such language about people who are literally serving the public, and in a moment of great strife. But I can assure you that these comments exist, and it is not pretty. If anything, you can be certain that when 2nd Amendment junkies who bow to sycophants like sad Donald Trump or his dolt of a Jr. jumps on something with such force, whatever action was taken was probably the correct one.

Whatever your beliefs are about policy decisions, conservative vs. liberal, Democrat or Republican, or something undefined and fluid, you can be sure that threatening people with violent retribution in public will not lead to any kind of acceptable outcome. Furthermore, part of living in a democracy means allowing our governmental systems to try its best to literally protect all of the freedoms we hold so dear. We can judge in hindsight, and we can debate the merits of past missteps, but in the moment, in this moment, we have to at least allow measured responses like this one to materialize and, then watch the outcome.

Like many of you, I have relationships with both Mayor Feinen and City Manager David. It’s part of the true value of living in a city this size. They are friendly with thousands of people because they make themselves available to their constituents. These are wise, thoughtful, kind-hearted people, and who are both deeply committed to the community and its safety. Do I always agree with their decisions or blindly nod my silly head in agreement about everything they do? No, I do not. In fact, I frequently ask more of them, or rather, to consider different ideas than the ones they are dreaming up. This very magazine does the same as well.

But I can state with certainty that I trust both of them more than I trust most anyone in this community right now to make the sort of bold and courageous choices we might need in the coming days, weeks, and perhaps even months. The reason I feel this way is that they both carry the weight of literally decades of experience in their respective fields: policy making and decisive governance. They take action, and have for years and years. 

This is a moment for finding ways to be supportive of one another, above all. If the time comes wherein Mayor Feinen orders the bars closed, and package liquor sales restricted, you can be sure that it will be as a result of such extreme situations having played out that we won’t want to be in bars drinking gin martinis, or at home watching Netflix with a handle of whiskey. If there is a moment where Mayor Feinen, who is a lifelong registered Republican — just for the goddamned record Mr. Trump Jr. — restricts the sales of guns and ammunition, it will be because your life is literally at stake. Your safety will be in peril. You will not be in a position to even buy a gun, let alone use it. We will have come to a moment of reckoning, and all the weapons or booze in the world won’t likely save us.

And by us, I mean all of us. We’re in this together, right? The only thing that might, however, is smart governance and carefully designed measures to protect our safety.

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