- Vaccine Mandate for City Employees, Beefed-Up Police Oversight on Next Tuesday’s Eureka City Council Agenda
During a lengthy virtual meeting on Tuesday night, the Eureka City Council unanimously approved a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all city employees, requiring that all employees be at least partially vaccinated by Oct.19 and fully vaccinated by Nov. 23.
The mandate states that employees who fail to comply with the policy “will not be permitted to perform work at City worksites and are subject to release from City employment.” Employees may request an exemption, however, if they have a verifiable medical condition that makes the vaccine not advisable or have religious beliefs that bar vaccination. If their exemption request is not approved, they must be partially or fully vaccinated within 14 days and fully vaccinated within eight weeks of when they were notified that their request for was not approved.
“This was not a decision that was made lightly and we feel that it’s really necessary and crucial in order to continue these critical public services that we provide,” Will Folger, director of human resources for the City of Eureka said to the council.
Asked by the council about the process of verifying someone’s religious exemption, Folger said that it was difficult to know exactly what that would look like and that it will have to be dealt with on a “case by case basis.”
The decision to approve the mandate seemed to be a relatively easy one for the council, with a pretty short discussion among the councilmembers. The public comment period took up some time, however, with more than a dozen community members sharing their thoughts on the issue — many urging the council to vote against it.
“Nobody should lose their jobs due to your COVID response,” community member Anne Baker said to the council. “People’s livelihoods are in your hands, which is a place I never expected our jobs to be. Your hands. Your hands can take away our paychecks, our hard-earned accomplishments from our work and our ability to provide for our families.”
Other community members voiced their support for the mandate, saying that vaccines are safe, effective and the only realistic way for us to get through this pandemic.
“I understand there are a lot of concerns, there are people who are very afraid,” commenter Mark Pardoe said during the meeting. “But the reality is the vaccine is very safe, it’s critical for our community and we have to remember there are a lot of people out there who really need us to help protect them. So I hope as a community we do as much as we can to help protect those people.”
Several commenters mentioned that some people have suffered serious side effects from the vaccine (The CDC reports that serious side effects from COVID vaccines are extremely rare.) One person questioned what the city’s liability might be if someone were to experience severe side effects after having to get vaccinated.
City Attorney Bob Black explained to the council that a person would have to file a worker’s comp claim and that he thinks “the odds of success in those types of claims will be very, very low.”
Ultimately the council voted to approve the COVID vaccination mandate, which will become effective immediately.
“For me this was a very difficult decision,” Councilmember Kim Bergel said during the meeting. “When looking at both sides of the situation I think it’s important to look at the community as a whole. This isn’t about individual people anymore. This is about a community as a whole working together. I heard a comment that 59-year-olds don’t die, and I just want to say that four people I know have died from COVID, and they were younger than 59. So I feel a level of frustration with that kind of banter and I wish you would look into your statistics a little further.”
In other business, the council spent a lot of the meeting discussing ways to transform the City’s Citizen Advisory Board — a group that advises the Chief of Police on police-community relations and police operations — into something with a little more teeth.
Originally city staff had proposed changing the name of the board to the “Citizen Oversight Board,” but the council agreed during the meeting to change the title to the “Community Accountability Board,” because the goal of the group is to improve transparency and accountability within the Eureka Police Department.
During the discussion, the council decided that it would like to see the board provide more oversight of police policy and procedures, have more access to community complaints about the police department and receive more input from historically marginalized groups.
The council also agreed that the City should consider hiring an Independent Police Auditor to work closely with the board and address citizen complaints, suggesting policy changes and addressing officer misconduct.
Councilmember Kati Moulton — who had put the item to the agenda — at first felt that there should not be any members on the board who previously served in law enforcement. But, at the suggestion of Police Chief Steve Watson, the council agreed to limit the board to only one member who has experience in law enforcement.
For the time being, the board will retain its current members at least until their terms expire. Moving forward, board members will be recommended by the mayor and selected by the council.
Though police reform has been a oft-discussed topic in the last year or so, especially since the EPD texting scandal, Councilmember Moulton wanted to say that those were not the reasons behind her desire to address this issue.
“The reason I brought this up when I did is that I feel very strongly that citizen oversight for the police is necessary for transparency and accountability,” Moulton said during the meeting. “This is not my response to any incidents that have happened, whether in this city or another city — any investigation, anything having to do with the EPD specifically or how ithas operated. I think this is a protection that we need to put into law and place for the future health and accountability of our police department and our community.”