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Emergency management changes move forward

haywoodHaywood County is continuing with efforts to update and improve its emergency management ordinance — a local regulation that came under fire last year by a group of residents who thought the language violated their constitutional rights.

County Manager Ira Dove has spent the last year going over the ordinance to clean up and clarify the language and also update certain parts of it that no longer jive with state law. 

“We spent a long time reviewing laws before we put the draft out a couple of weeks ago,” he said. “We gathered public feedback and have even gotten some feedback since we released it.”

Though not required by law, the commissioners held another public hearing at Monday night’s board meeting to allow one more chance for public comment, but no one signed up to speak on the subject. 

North Carolina law requires each county to have an emergency management ordinance that outlines procedures to follow when the county is faced with a number of emergencies, from natural disasters to a hazardous waste spill. Dove said the county had declared a state of emergency four different times since passing the ordinance in 2009. The last state of emergency was called in January when Winter Storm Jonas was blowing through Haywood County. 

Critics of the original ordinance claimed it gave too much power to the county manager during emergency situations, including the ability to dismiss public officials for failure to obey an order, control all resources (food, materials, services, fuel and wages), and force people off their property. 

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Language stating the county manager had the authority to “perform and exercise such other functions, powers and duties as are necessary to promote and secure safety and protection of the civilian population,” was also a concern for the group of civil liberty advocates. To them, it meant county officials could seize their firearms during emergency situations. 

Dove said language was added throughout the ordinance stating the county may only operate within the powers of the state and federal law. And since the courts have ruled it unconstitutional for governments to restrict lawful possession of firearms, the ordinance in no way allows the county to seize someone’s lawfully owned weapons during an emergency. 

“The state law allows us to prohibit and restrict a lot of things but it doesn’t allow us to restrict lawfully possessed firearms,” Dove said. 

Commission Chairman Mark Swanger said the commissioners would not answer questions about the ordinance during the public hearing nor would the board make a decision immediately following the hearing. The earliest commissioners will vote on the matter is during the May 4 meeting. 

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