The COVID-19 pandemic has demanded an “all-hands-on-deck” response from all levels of our nation’s governance structure. Mayors, council members, city and county health officials, governors, as well as the Administration and Congress, are all working to ensure that response and recovery efforts are “locally executed, state managed, and federally supported.” In communities large and small, urban and rural, local officials have been fast-acting and decisive in their actions to guard the health and wellbeing of cities, towns, and villages across America. From limiting public gatherings, closing beaches and restaurants, and implementing remote work for municipal employees, local leaders have charted the course for policy response. However, some local leaders come up against the challenge of having their local actions challenged or overridden by state actions. As the pandemic spreads, it is clearer with each passing day that now is the time for collaboration and partnership.
As of April 7th, at least 42 states have issued state-wide stay at home orders. However, in states without such orders, mayors and council members are leading the way to flatten the curve and stop the spread.
In South Dakota, Mayor Nathan Johnson of Yankton, a city with a population of 14,500 is taking bold action to keep residents safe despite the lack of a stay at home order from the Governor. According to Mayor Johnson, “Through our communications [with other local leaders] via the coordination of the South Dakota Municipal League, city leaders have realized the burden of response to the pandemic has, for the most part, been put squarely on our shoulders.” Recognizing the need for action, the Mayor, Council, and a County task force closed certain public facilities and declared a state of emergency.
“Upon hearing [that there would not be a state-wide order], it was decided that the City of Yankton would need to consider the need for these measures on its own,” said Mayor Johnson. The city unanimously passed an ordinance on March 24th to limit public gatherings and close certain businesses. In states without stay at home orders, local actions like the one in South Dakota are essential towards slowing the spread of COVID-19.
However, in six states, cities have not been able to take necessary local actions due to state preemption of local emergency orders. According to the Local Solutions Support Center, as of April 8th at least six states have issued executive orders or legal opinions preventing cities, towns, and villages from implementing stay at home orders or similar policies tailored to the needs of their communities. The results have produced confusion for local elected officials and their constituents.
Some Mayors have been successful in navigating this confusion and building compromises to combat the spread of the pandemic. In Arizona, after Governor Ducey preempted any local actions in response to COVID-19, the mayors of nine cities, from Phoenix to Flagstaff to Guadalupe, wrote to the governor asking him to enact a state-wide stay at home order. The Governor and Mayors reached a resolution resulting in a statewide effort to flatten the curve.
State and Local Collaboration
The collaboration with cities, towns and villages has been essential towards addressing the myriad of challenges associated with COVID-19. In North Carolina, effective March 30, Governor Cooper issued a state-wide stay at home order that explicitly allows localities to issue more stringent orders for their communities. Where there may be differences in the state and local orders, the Governor has advised that whichever order is more restrictive is the one to be followed. With a state-wide standard from which municipalities can build, and a reinforcement of local authority from the Governor, New Hanover County and its four municipalities, Wilmington, Carolina Beach, Kure Beach and Wrightsville Beach, issued their own, stronger stay at home order to reflect the local challenges faced by their communities. These times of crisis call for this type of cooperation and collaboration. As state and local leaders begin to tackle other issues, these examples of local-state cooperation can serve as a precursor to a new era of partnership.
Top 3 Tips for Collaboration
As cities, towns and villages continue to execute local orders that support the nationwide effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, local leaders can consider the following tactics to strengthen their responses and collaborative efforts.
Advocate for Direct Funding: The majority of America’s cities, towns and villages are not eligible for direct fiscal relief under the CARES Act, due to a population threshold of 500,000 for municipalities. On Tuesday, April 7, Representatives Neguse (CO-2), Levin (MI-9), Lujan (NM-3) and Malinowski (NJ-7) introduced the Coronavirus Community Relief Act (H.R. 6467), a bill to provide $250 billion in funding to all local government, regardless of population. Reach out to your members of Congress in the House to ask them to support this critical legislation.
Understand Your Authority: Under normal circumstances, but especially during times of crisis, local leaders must understand their legal authorities for decision-making. Earlier this year, NLC released “New Principles of Home Rule for the 21st Century” and the City Rights in an Era of Preemption Municipal Action Guide. Additionally, the Local Solutions Support Center has published a guide on how to determine what emergency powers your town may have. Consult your state municipal league for the latest updates on stature and check out NLC’s Local Action Tracker, which documents the actions municipalities across the country have taken during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Communication is Key: Set the tone and understand your message. Whether communicating your needs clearly to state and federal partners or ensuring that residents understand the on-the-ground implications of stay at home orders, ensure that your messages are clear, direct, and accessible. Consult the NLC’s coronavirus resource page for advice on leading and communicating during a crisis. We are all in this together. To successfully fight this pandemic, it is critical that there is strong federal-state-local partnership.
About the Authors:
Katie Colten is the Member Engagement Manager, South Region, for NLC’s Center for Member and Partner Engagement.
Stephanie Martinez-Ruckman is the Legislative Director for Human Development at the National League of Cities. Follow Stephanie on Twitter @martinezruckman.
Stacy Richardson is the Program Director for Urban Innovation at the National League of Cities.
Spencer Wagner is the Program Specialist with NLC’s Local Democracy Initiative. His research focuses on state preemption of local policy and its impacts.