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Haywood concedes to tune up — and tone down — emergency playbook

Overbearing language in Haywood County’s emergency management protocols is being revised to make it more palatable to civil liberty watchdogs.

The emergency plan spells out powers the county can evoke in a major crisis — be it a mundane blizzard or extreme terrorist attack, or even a threat from a rogue paramilitary group.

 

But to some, it’s been a tough pill to swallow — namely for those concerned about a trampling of individual rights.

“My biggest hope is they change some of the language so it doesn’t appear they are suspending the Bill of Rights in the event of an emergency,” said Windy McKinney, a Libertarian who ran for county commissioner last fall.

The emergency management ordinance was a sleeper when it was first adopted in 2009. The language was lifted wholesale from a state template, but came under fire about a year ago from a coalition of Libertarians and conservatives.

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The critics have been unrelenting in their condemnation of the emergency management ordinance over the past year, claiming it essentially gives the county the power to control society and take away individual freedoms. But the critics have been portrayed as alarmists, conspiracy theorists and even anarchists.

County Commissioner Mark Swanger said the critics of the ordinance are taking lines out of context, rather than viewing the ordinance in its totality.

“You can pick out a part of a paragraph or part of a sentence and make it sound just awful,” Swanger said. “In an effort to simplify it and remove the politics from it, we are going to make sure each paragraph, if it is separated, stands on its own. We want to make it very clear to anyone who reads it that it is a lawful document designed to save lives.”

Swanger accepts that some critics may be genuinely concerned about an erosion of civil liberties at the hands of a totalitarian government in the future.

“I am not saying everything in that ordinance is perfect. There is room for improvement. We know we have a lot of very smart citizens who may offer suggestions we haven’t thought of,” Swanger said.

But others are merely exploiting fear mongering for political gain, he said. The emergency management ordinance was used as ammunition against sitting county commissioners in the fall election.

“There are people who take advantage of the fact that you can peddle a myth and have it go viral quicker than any mainstream media outlet can print the truth,” Swanger said. “There is only so much you can do to control those that have other agendas.”

Swanger said it is now up to the critics whether they seize this opportunity to participate in a rewrite. If they don’t, then it will seem the brouhaha over the emergency management ordinance was just a “straw man to criticize government,” Swanger said.

The rewrite will most likely focus on semantics — cleaning up any ambiguous language for clarity’s sake.

As for substance, it remains to be seen whether the county will make any major concessions.

Jess Dunlap, chair of the Haywood County Libertarian Party, said she is “cautiously optimistic.”

The Haywood County Libertarian Party has played a leading role in criticism of the ordinance, hosting public meetings with a point-by-point critique and even developing an alternative version of their own.

“We didn’t give up because each time we talked about it, we had more people perk their ears up. Interest has grown as opposed to diminished,” said Dunlap.

In January, the Libertarian Party organized yet another public meeting to sound off about the ordinance, and invited Sheriff Greg Christopher, who listened to a crowd of about 60 voice their concerns.

 “He said he understood the problem we could have with the wording,” Dunlap said. 

Parts of it may seem over the top, County Commissioner Kevin Ensley admitted, but it’s easy to think of scenarios when the various provisions would be necessary to save lives.

For example, critics don’t like the part that gives the county power to control movement in and out of an emergency zone. But Ensley recalls perimeters set up around the floodwaters along the Pigeon River in 2004. Floodwaters were strewn with a flotilla of heating oil drums and propane tanks ripped up from yards along the river banks.

“The smell of kerosene and heating oil was overpowering, and you had propane tanks floating down the river and clinking against the bridges,” Ensley said. “And you had disease breeding from the sewage plant overflow.”

A mandatory evacuation during a major landslide in Maggie Valley a few years ago also comes to mind.

“It was imminent that something else was coming down the mountain and they were trying to keep people safe,” Ensley said.

The provision to trespass without permission of the property owner is also offensive to some, but would be critical if a truck carrying radioactive waste ran off the Interstate and needed to be cleaned up immediately, Ensley said.

Another section in the crosshairs: a provision allowing the county to seize supplies and redistribute them. It’s supposed to keep merchants from charging $50 for a bottle of water, pack of batteries or gallon of gas in an emergency.

But it’s also a direct affront to the so-called “preppers” who have stockpiled food and ammunition in fallout bunkers. Their hard work to prepare for a doomsday scenario would be negated if county officials turned up on their doorstep, demanding they hand over their provisions.

Ensley thinks that’s a pretty big leap, and highly unlikely. If there’s massive societal collapse, the county manager won’t be out knocking on bunker doors.

“I think most of the emergency management people are going to be with their families,” Ensley said. “The slides and floods are what we have to look out for.”

Jeremy Davis, a conservative from the Bethel area, says why not strike what he considers “draconian” portions of the ordinance?

“If they can’t envision in their lifetime it having to be used, lets get ahead of it before it is used and write a more liberty-sensitive emergency management ordinance that doesn’t give anyone the right to come steal my guns, my food, my vehicles,” Davis said.

County officials have invited written public comments as they embark on the rewrite. They will also do an in-house line-by-line review of the ordinance, assessing it for clarity and comparing it to those on the books in other counties.

The rewrite team includes County Manager Ira Dove, County Attorney Chip Killian, Emergency Services Coordinator Greg Shuping, Public Information Officer David Teague, among “others who will be asked to help and give input,” Dove said.

After their first pass at a rewrite, a new version will be floated as a draft, and then head for a formal public hearing to allow for another round of comments before hammering out a final version.

The date for that public hearing hasn’t been set yet. The deadline for written comments is the end of February, so it will be March at the earliest before a draft rewrite comes out.

 

 

In case of…

In the event of a declared emergency, the Haywood County Emergency Management Ordinance gives the county the power to:

• Evacuate an area.

• Control movements in and out of a disaster zone.

• Impose price controls and rations of supplies.

• Take over the supply and distribution chain for goods and services.

• Impose curfews and otherwise control gatherings.

• Trespass on private property without permission.

• Seize equipment and supplies needed for emergency response.

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