Visalia Council can’t reopen what it didn’t close

City attorney says Councilman Poochigian’s motion directing staff against enforcement of Gov.’s order would have been unlawful

VISALIA – The Visalia City Council didn’t vote last week to reopen the economy, not because they didn’t want to, but because they weren’t allowed to.

The discussion about the city’s role in allowing retail and other segments of the local economy reopen began at the council’s May 4 meeting when councilmember Brian Poochigian attempted to make a motion directing the Visalia Police Department and the city’s Code Enforcement not to enforce the Governor’s guidelines on which businesses were considered essential and allowed to open.

“The No. 1 thing we can do is help getting people back to work,” Poochigian said. “Our No. 1 priority is working with law enforcement to not enforce the Governor’s ban.”

He was cutoff mid motion by Vice Mayor Steve Nelsen who wanted to clarify that the police department has never enforced any of those guidelines, which then dovetailed into a public hearing where local business owners and residents clamored for small businesses to be allowed to go back to work. After several attempts to finish his motion, and after warnings from city manager Randy Groom about voting on an item that was not on the agenda, city attorney Ken Richardson shut down the motion.

“I would caution against making any motion that affirmatively directs staff in contravention to the Governor’s executive orders, which are lawful orders the cities and the counties do have to follow,” Richardson said.

Poochigian challenged the attorney’s logic saying that the guidelines instructed Tulare County Public Health to enforce the law and not the city of Visalia. “We are not breaking with Governor’s order, we are putting it in the County Health Department’s hands,” he said.

Groom said the city, and its police department, support the county health department’s effort to keep the peace even though the city has not been called to take any direct actions against businesses. Groom said the city’s code enforcement has issued warnings and provided information to local businesses about what types of businesses are allowed to operate during the stay-at-home order and protocols for essential businesses. On April 8, the city announced on its website that, “If you own or operate a business that is not designated as one that may be open at this time, or if you own a building in which such business is being conducted, the City may take action against you. Please comply voluntarily with the Governor’s Executive Order and avoid more stringent action.” Those actions could have included fines or revoking their business license, neither of which happened to any business owner.

Police Chief Jason Salazar confirmed at the May 6 meeting that his department has not issued any citations or fines for businesses out of compliance with the Governor’s orders.

Poochigian’s motion died for lack of a second.

When the council reconvened for a special meeting on Thursday, May 7, the councilman backed off of his motion and instead asked residents and business owners to “do their part.”

“It’s going to take awhile for this to get back to normal,” Poochigian said. “I want to make sure they stay safe and they stay healthy.”

Poochigian’s statement came after two rounds of public comments at the two council meetings where residents and small business owners alike called for the council to “open Visalia.”

At the end of the special meeting during an open forum to discuss anything related to the city’s response to COVID-19 or its operations, programs, projects, actions and communications regarding the pandemic situation, Nelsen took the opportunity to remind residents that the city council could not open what it did not close.

“At no time did this city council make a resolution to close the city of Visalia. Since day one we have said we will follow Governor’s requirements and the [County] health department’s requirements. We did not decide who is essential or non-essential. Some did what was right, some did not close. We have always as a council expressed an interest to reopen the economy.”

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