By Earle Eldridge
There's a plan.
The county executive has been given broad, unilateral authority to issue orders aimed at maintaining peace, saving lives and providing help during a local or state emergency.
The new authority is part of a bill the County Council unanimously approved March 6 that clarifies the role of the executive and other county officials during a natural catastrophe or other major emergency.
"It's not just fire and police but for every county agency," county Fire Chief Joseph Herr said.
Under the bill, the county executive can issue executive orders that, among other things, would control the flow of traffic, alcohol sales, firearm use, building occupancy, and vehicle and pedestrian movement within a declared emergency zone.
The bill makes the fire chief the county's emergency manager, which brings the chief's authority into line with state law.
The county executive's authority is modeled after power given to Maryland's governor during a state of emergency, Herr said.
State of emergency
The bill allows the executive to declare a state of emergency in Howard through an executive order that officials must promptly publicize and that is effective for up to seven days.
If the state of emergency lasts more than seven days, the County Council would go into emergency session before the end of the seventh day to consider a resolution to continues the state of emergency for a period of time it deems appropriate.
The bill defines an emergency as "a threat or occurrence of a disaster in or affecting Howard County that requires state assistance" or "the implementation of a local emergency management plan" to "protect the public health and safety."
Examples of such an emergency include, "a hurricane, tornado, flood, wind-driven water, storm surge, tidal wave, earthquake, mudslide, snowstorm, drought, fire, or explosion, an enemy attack or act of terrorism or public health catastrophe."
Developed since 9/11
County officials have been working on implementing county emergency management plans since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and have reviewed what powers and authority emergency officials need during a disaster, Herr said.
Recent natural disasters elsewhere, and the government response to those disasters, also helped officials decide what authority they needed, he said.
The county's Law Office reviewed the bill to ensure that it complies with existing laws, Herr said.
County Council chairman Christopher Merdon, a Republican from Ellicott City, said the bill provides a clear understanding of what authority, responsibility and actions the county executive can undertake during a state of emergency.
That authority has been tested before.
During Hurricane Isabel in 2003, the Phoenix Emporium, a restaurant on Main Street in Ellicott City, refused to close and stop selling liquor at the request of police, according to testimony by Howard County Police Chief Wayne Livesay.
During a Howard County Liquor Board hearing about the Phoenix Emporium, Livesay testified that the owners were uncooperative and threw a "Hurricane Party."
But Mark Hemmis, owner of the Phoenix Emporium, said in an interview this week that police never asked him to close during the hurricane and that he "wouldn't have hesitated" to do so if police had asked him to. He said police asked him to remove a sign from the restaurant during Isabel.
Hemmis said he supports the new authority given the county executive.
"I think the county should have the authority to stop liquor sales during a disaster," Hemmis said. "If it's for public safety, I agree."
Merdon said that the county executive needs the authority to take quick action during disasters because the county has a "very strong" executive style of government.
E-mail Earle Eldridge at email@example.com