Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Midlothian City Council took two major steps at Tuesday night’s regular meeting, declaring a disaster for the city and joining Midlothian Independent School District in postponing its May 2 municipal election to November.
The council’s move to delay the election comes after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a proclamation last week authorizing political subdivisions to do so. City Manager Chris Dick told the council that if Midlothian were to proceed with a May 2 vote, the Ellis County Elections Office would be unable to assist with the election.
Separately, the Midlothian ISD board of trustees voted in a special meeting on Monday night to postpone its election to November.
“I’m not comfortable with being the lone entity that continues forward with the potential May 2 election, being standalone and being viewed in the public eye,” Mayor Pro Tem Justin Coffman said. “Some people would say it’s good that we’re pushing forward and keeping a sense of normalcy, but in my opinion the majority would (view us as) the entity that isn’t as concerned with public health.”
Councilmember Mike Rodgers, who is not running for reelection, was in favor of holding the election on time, saying the long list of exceptions in the Ellis County Commissioners’ Court’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order issued Tuesday night makes “meddling with our constitutional rights” a step too far.
“A disease such as this could be carried in the November election also,” Rodgers said. “I want to stress my biggest concern is that we’re getting into a habit of moving forward. We may be in a little bit better situation in November, but it doesn’t erase the potential for being in a situation where you come into contact.”
Mayor Richard Reno said he agreed with Rodgers to a point, in that delaying the election should not be done in the name of convenience.
“Our right to vote is so important that there has to be a higher reason than convenience,” Reno said. “And I think there is a higher reason that will justify us to set aside this sacred right. We can debate and discuss this point, but we need it to be a very serious and somber motivation and not because it’s easy.”
The motion to postpone the election to November passed 5-1, with Rodgers voting against.
The city’s disaster declaration, meanwhile, is in effect for 14 days and is considerably briefer than one the council considered in an emergency meeting last week, consisting of one page. Dick told councilmembers that the new declaration does not contain any more restrictions than what the county and state have already enacted.
“In essence, what this does is it qualifies us,” Dick said. “It ensures that we are qualified for any federal funding assistance that we become eligible for. We have some firefighters in quarantine, so we are incurring costs now that may or may not be eligible.”
Police Chief Carl D. Smith said his department has already encountered violations of what orders were already in place: for instance, a large weekend party that involved more than 50 people who came from out of town to the city; and also, curfew violations involving adolescents.
“If law enforcement and our communities present solidarity in how we’re going to deal with these types of violations, then I think we’ll be stronger and it’ll push down this type of activity,” Smith said.
Smith noted, and councilmember Rodgers agreed, that because of the numerous exceptions in stay-in-place orders such as grocery shopping and operating essential businesses, any order would be difficult to enforce.
Fire Chief Dale McCaskill told the council that the personnel now in quarantine for 14 days were responding to a critical-care call involving a COVID-19 patient. All are asymptomatic at this point, McCaskill said, but the confinement is tough on them from a mental standpoint.
McCaskill said businesses in the area have been active in donating personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves to the fire department.
Much of the discussion took place while the Ellis County Commissioners’ Court, meeting at the same time, was still deliberating over its shelter-in-place order. Ultimately, the county court narrowly approved its own order, which supersedes the city unless the city wanted to enact a more stringent order. The county order is in effect through April 3.
Before receiving word of the commissioners’ vote, the council discussed a standalone shelter-in-place order for Midlothian, but city attorney Kevin Laughlin pointed out that the language in such an order is highly-detailed and would take some time to put on paper.
• The Midlothian Senior Citizens Center and library have already been closed to the general public and restrictions on the city animal shelter have been put in place. But Dick said other facilities such as City Hall, city parks and the Midlothian Conference Center remain open.
• The Downtown Midlothian Market scheduled for most Saturdays starting May 2 and continuing into December was authorized by the council in spite of the current restrictions in place. Dick said if the pandemic continues into May, those early market days can be canceled.
• The council OK’d improvements at the intersection of FM 1387 and Hayes Road at a cost of about $1.2 million, about a quarter of which will be paid by the developer and the rest from impact fees from builders. City engineering and utilities director Mike Adams said the project has been on the city’s radar since 2016 and includes the reconfiguration of the intersection into a “T” with the addition of turn lanes. The design accounts for the future expansion of Hayes Road into a four-lane facility.
• A two-year contract with three one-year options was awarded to Rightway Lawn & Tree Maintenance, LLC for brush-cut mowing services. City parks and recreation director Heather Dowell said there are areas of heavy vegetation that have grown up over a number of years that current contractors are unwilling to mow because of potential damage, and that heavier mowing equipment is needed. Dowell said the contract is for a maximum of $154,000, and there is enough money in the budget to cover the contract through this year.
• Two items related to the Americans with Disabilities Act — the formulation of a transition plan and self-evaluation — was approved through a $50,000 agreement with Kimley-Horn and Associates, Inc., which will assist in developing the plan.
• The council agreed with Swagit Productions, LLC to add closed captioning functionality to the recording of public meetings at a one-time cost of $12,350 and annual cost of $15,000.
• Following an executive session, the council agreed to authorize the hiring of a new EMS chief and authorized the Midlothian Economic Development Corporation to enter into a sale agreement with Earth Root Holdings Inc. for approximately 85 acres of land in the Midlothian Business Park.