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What happens if Pueblo’s elected officials contract COVID-19, then what?

Pueblo leaders give a press conference over testing the Colorado State Fairgrounds on Thursday, March 19, 2020. (PULP Colorado)
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What would happen if three Pueblo City Council members avoided a public meeting over personal safety concerns, the 70-year-old mayor was under personal threat from something the police are powerless to stop, and county commissioners dispensed with regular meetings for a month?

This is the current state-of-play in Pueblo and what COVID-19 has done in just a week.

The Local Picture: COVID-19 has disrupted the regular order of business in Pueblo. Meetings are going virtual and there is uncertainty how to adhere to Colorado’s open meetings laws while keeping everyone safe, including the elected officials.

Pueblo City Council: 

With Pueblo City Government consisting of 7 men (6 on council, 1 mayor) in the at-risk age demographic, continuity of government and their safety, as well as the public’s well-being is an issue the city hopes to address Monday evening.

Council President Dennis Flores plans to introduce an emergency ordinance allowing members to teleconference into a session while conducting official business in the purview of the public.

Flores believes the teleconference is legally sufficient to allow those members to participate at home.

Behind the scenes: Only 4 council members plan to attend Monday’s regular session — enough for a quorum. Councilmember Lori Winner told PULP, Monday’s meeting was a “dumb idea” and that it puts “seniors’ health at risk.” She was referring to both the councilmembers’ age and at-risk Puebloans. 

“We have to do it (city business) without meeting in-person.” Winner said.

Flores wants to make two emergency ordinances giving the mayor additional emergency powers while solving this virtual meeting problem. He hopes social distancing will make the meeting safe enough to pass an ordinance to allow for legal virtual meetings in the coming weeks.

Pueblo County: 

Earlier this week, the county voted to allow commissioners to conduct emergency business over virtual meetings, and regular meetings were suspended until May. Public comments should be sent to the Public Information Officer, Adam Uhernik. 

Why it matters: 

In both the city and county situations, what would happen if a quorum, physical or virtual, wasn’t met and the two governments couldn’t perform emergency duties? This is new territory.

If the Mayor of Pueblo couldn’t perform his duties:

It’s a morbid thought, but with Vail’s mayor disclosing he has the virus, the unthinkable is a real threat to local governments. The chain of command for the executive office is not a mystery. Should Nick Gradisar not be able to continue then Police Chief and Vice Mayor Troy Davenport would be sworn in. 

Why it matters:  There’s the less morbid question of how the mayor can lead if he’s under quarantine and what those challenges would be? It’s virgin territory, again, with no clear direction forward. With Chief of Staff Laura Solano, and city department heads — the city would still have its core leadership at all city levels even if the mayor is forced to stay home.

Behind the scenes: In an interview with PULP discussing how Pueblo would rebound economically, in a question about his own safety, Mayor Gradisar’s health became a sudden and harsh reality. “Well, I guess I’m at-risk being 70.” 

“I don’t shake hands. And I’m trying to limit the amount of contact I have,” said Gradisar on how he’s trying to show leadership but stay safe.

Worst case scenario: If the city council couldn’t form a quorum because there wasn’t enough members, it would have to quickly make replacement appoints. At the county things are different. Should there be a vacancy, the Pueblo County Democratic Party would need to quickly to set-up a vacancy committee to fill the seat. Should the vacancy committee not appoint a replacement, Governor Jared Polis would fill the appointment.

If elected officials are just too sick to attend meetings but the seat isn’t vacant, the hope is these illnesses do not occur at once.

The big picture: For the next few weeks, local governments, in Pueblo and around Colorado are well into the unknown, trying to create safe distances to run emergency governments all the while hoping elected officials do not contract COVID-19 crashing the levers of government.

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