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Are the county’s first responders safe?

The Gadsden County Board of County Commissioners held an emergency meeting Tuesday, August  4 so commissioners might address issues which had recently emerged.

Concerned citizens and first responders recently sent letters to the commission, voicing concern regarding the county’s delayed implementation of the new emergency radio system from Motorola.

This project has been in the works for a number of years, and while new radio equipment has been purchased and installed, the county’s first responders are still relying on an older operating system, which the letters claim is dangerous and will eventually result in lost lives.

Commissioner Brenda Holt said that she had once worked in emergency response and took offense to the letters’ accusations of willful inaction from commissioners. Holt mentioned that new equipment had been provided and that in the meantime, first responders can use their cell phones in emergency situations.

Commissioner Sherrie Taylor questioned the emergency system, stating the new system was ready to be put in place, new equipment has been installed and the radio towers are up.

Taylor added that the letters had been organized from first responders and that “Ray Charles can see this is a campaign.”

Taylor requested Motorola give the board clarity on what else is needed for the system to be up and running. Taylor stressed the board must balance its responsibility to be conscious of the welfare of county residents and fiscally responsible.

Commissioner Gene Morgan said he has made the emergency system a priority and the situation surrounding the delayed implementation of the system could be described as a “red herring.” 

The board made plans to discuss options to expedite the implementation process at a virtual special meeting Thursday, August 17.

In other business, the board voted on an approval to confirm Diane E. Quigley as the new Growth Management Director for the Planning and Community Development Department, during which Taylor expressed concern regarding the position’s high turnover.

Holt expressed her own reservations regarding Quigley’s work experience having only been in urban counties.

The board approved Quigley for the position.

The board also discussed the need for repairs to houses with existing storm damage and for further preparation to be made for any future storms the county experiences.

Commission Chairman Anthony Viegbesie said the board needed to include the Emergency Management department in the conversation. Viegbesie directed interim County Administrator Wesley Hall to work with the State Housing Initiatives Partnership to expedite funding on the structures in need of storm repairs.

Holt brought up the need for the county commission to encourage municipalities within Gadsden County to apply for other programs, so they might provide additional funds for storm damage repairs.

The board also discussed aspects from their CARES Act funding response plan. The CARES Act is an economic stimulus bill passed by the U.S. Congress to soften the economic fallout of COVID-19.

Holt said she wants to make sure larger entities are not seeking more funds from the plan to the detriment of smaller entities who have not yet received any funding assistance.

Taylor said she was concerned with the CARES Act funding deadline of December 30 and asked if there was a way to expedite or bypass the board’s established procurement process.

Morgan advised the board to follow its attorney’s counsel and established procurement process, because the county is likely to be audited by the federal government.

He also said the board needs to follow the Integrity Group’s lead to get them through the CARES Act funding process.

Viegbesie said that if he suspected any “impropriety in allocation” of funds, such as bypassing the procurement process, he would file an ethics violation.

“That’s not a threat, that’s a promise,” added Viegsbesie.

Taylor said no one on the board intends to do anything “outside the law” and she felt like she was trying to do something illegal by his statement.

“A clear conscience fears no accusation,” said Viegsbesie.

The board then discussed measures the county needed to take in response to COVID-19.

Holt said board members needed to conduct individual research into how they can best respond to emergencies in the current state of the pandemic, referencing issues that counties in South Florida experienced while responding to Hurricane Isaias.

Taylor said Emergency Management and the Sheriff’s Office needs to be present at the board meetings and involved with the board’s discussions regarding the county’s COVID-19 response.

Viegbesie said the board is working with the Gadsden County Health Council to improve the COVID-19 response campaign. He said law enforcement has requested a standard citation document for violators for emergency regulatory mandates. Law enforcement does not want to use a regular ticket in their enforcement of crowd and mask regulations. Viegbesie said the board needs to provide law enforcement with a document that can be issued as a non-criminal citation or civil citation. 

The board resolved to look further into the mask mandate and to clarify the intensive language for law enforcement to use when enforcing mandates in regard to crowds and masks. 

Kevin Murphy