Plastic shopping bags returning as Covid-19 response

Mar 24, 2020

Homer City Manager Katie Koester giving a state of the city address.
Credit KBBI File Photo/Aaron Bolton, KBBI News

Things were anything but normal at Monday night’s regular meeting of the Homer City Council.
Only the mayor and one council member were present in chambers, while the other five attended the meeting via telephone. A few staff were in attendance as well, and while citizens were allowed, attendance was less than sparse.
    As the council waded through a handful of ordinances and resolutions extending Mayor Ken Castner’s Covid-19 emergency declaration for 90 days, and positioning council and staff to best respond, the limitations of the current technology became apparent, with nearly constant drop-outs of the audio feed of those on phone calls. Council member Rachel Lord said she was getting text messages from citizens saying they couldn’t follow what was happening.
    One of the ordinances the council approved made it legal for council members to hold meetings telephonically, without having to suspend the rules temporarily as they did Monday night. Another appropriated $50,000 for emergency preparation and response. Given the problem with serving the phone bridge over the public internet feed, some council members hoped a portion of the money could be used to improve it, or go to a web-based video system.
     City Manager Katie Koester, in her last meeting, urged caution.
     “I'd like to share my ‘No New Toys’ speech with council. I shared this with the mayor earlier. But you saw the difficulty in this teleconference phone call. Everyone knows how to use a phone call. We've been using phones for I don't know, when was the telephone invented? And we had difficulties and IT difficulties,” she said. “So I just would ask that the expectations of this being implemented right now are low because right now we have tremendous demands on our IT resources to maintain basic city services.”   
     She said her issues with platforms like the video conferencing app Zoom, are many.
     “I have real concerns about what it looks like from a record-keeping perspective what it looks like from document management. Do we have to, you know, record the the the Zoom? What does that look like? How do we archive that?” she said. “There's just so many things to think through and we just don't have the capacity at this moment to think through them.”
     Besides, Koester said an emergency is no time to try something new.
     “The mayor mentioned that we're early in this response. So it is my hope that we kind of figure out the kinks, the growing pains, as Council member Smith said, and then we would have the capacity,” Koester said. “But I just would ask that you not expect us to come to the next meeting with this capability because it will take quite a bit of time that we just don't have right now to dedicate towards that.”
    In other Covid-19 emergency news, plastic grocery bags are coming back.
Comments from managers and employees at Save-U-More that were submitted online and read by the city clerk made clear their concerns with the cleanliness of reusable shopping bags during this time of pandemic. The store manager wrote that he was contemplating banning them from the store for the duration of the emergency.
    Council member Heath Smith said the community can’t afford to have the grocery stores close because the employees all fall ill.
    “Hearing from our local stores and their concerns for their employees. If their employees are put at any additional risk, it creates a problem with them being able to maintain a workforce,” Smith said. “Our grocery stores are the last places we have really open.”   
     Council member Caroline Venuti is a staunch supporter of the plastic bag ban, but said she sees the value in suspending their use at this time.
     “I just wanted to add that I can support this. And I know the voters do care about our store, our employees. I care about them, very much so, and consider them my friends,” she said.
    The council also approved a contract with Marvin Yoder, who will -- for the second time -- become an interim city manager for Homer. Katie Koester’s last day will be April 3.