Fullerton’s Mayor Jennifer Fitzgerald held her first “Virtual Town Hall” via video feed from the mayor’s office in city hall on the morning of Monday, April 27. Characterizing the virtual method as “stilted and awkward,” she lamented that she was unable to “have a face to face conversation right now” with constituents because of the current stay at home orders given by the governor to slow the spread of the COVID19 virus. After thanking healthcare workers, front line responders, city staff, and public safety officers, she thanked the Fullerton community for “adhering outstandingly” to the governor’s order. She urged residents not to forgo calling 911 during an emergency, and explained that responding medical teams are observing special COVID19 rules, wearing special gear if symptoms of the virus are suspected.
Mayor Fitzgerald then offered some items of recent news, beginning with the city council’s vote to issue a proclamation requiring the wearing of face coverings by customers of essential businesses. Voted in the prior Tuesday, the order took effect on Friday, April 24. It adds customers to the County of Orange’s requirement that employees of specified essential businesses wear face coverings. The Board of Supervisors vote occurred earlier on the same day as the Fullerton City Council’s vote. She noted that the council vote had not been a unanimous one, but declined to mention that she had been one of two dissenting votes, arguing that night that the decision to require face coverings of customers should be made by the businesses themselves, and not required by the local government. Nonetheless, during the virtual town hall she described the new rule as a “belt and suspenders” approach intended to ensure the highest degree of safety during the pandemic. She also claimed that many in town were divided on the necessity of the requirement.
Some of the public questions she addressed later in the presentation concerned the new rule, including inquiries about how it will be enforced. She noted that the city’s municipal code allows for enforcement if necessary, but declined to elaborate. (The Fullerton Police Department indicated in a separate message to the Observer that they would respond to calls for service, but that their goal at this time was to “educate the public and spread awareness of the Coronavirus.”)
Other community update items included promoting the city’s COVID19 emailed newsletter, the city’s collaboration with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to deliver meals to local seniors, grocery distribution through Second Harvest, and the city’s Senior Buddies program.
Members of the public had been invited to submit questions via the city’s Instagram account and through email prior to the meeting. She responded to over twenty of them, sometimes several at once if the subjects were similar enough to one another. Many of the questions were related to the current COVID19 emergency, although a few addressed long standing problems of infrastructure repair, or lack of it, in Fullerton.
A question about how much authority the city had over which businesses would be allowed open was followed by an explanation that the City must follow the guidelines of Orange County’s Healthcare Agency (OCHCA) to ensure that proper social distancing, hygiene, and general safety of patrons and business employees would be followed. She said she was closely watching the actions of the county’s Board of Supervisors and its new Economic Recovery Task Force, recently formed to plan for an eventual reopening of the county economy.
Responding to a question about when local restaurants might be able to open and what their occupancy rules would be, Mayor Fitzgerald said she supported fellow council member Ahmad Zahra’s request that Fullerton form its own economic recovery task force to assist businesses. Asked later that day by the Observer about who was on the task force, a city spokesperson replied that “The Economic Recovery Advisory Group will be convened next week and we are currently awaiting responses from invited business owners. These owners represent all sectors of business in the community.” The outright closure or curtailment of many local businesses has negatively affected the city’s budget, leading to the layoffs of over 150 city staff members. One resident asked if people could volunteer to help with city events to fill in for staff, an idea embraced by Mayor Fitzgerald as a “wonderful opportunity” for citizens and non-profits. The city’s two farmers markets continue as essential services, but with modified conditions. “As we are ready to reopen more activities, then we’ll be ready to do that.” Meanwhile, the city is formulating a new fiscal budget covering a period beginning July 1.
One resident asked what to do about a swimming pool reported to still be open. The mayor suggested contacting the relevant homeowners association. Another asked if police should be called to investigate parties during the stay at home order. She said that police have responded to such calls in parks and at private residences.
Returning to the subject of the new face covering requirements, she referred to the recording of the council meeting wherein the decision was made when asked what factors the council considered when adopting the new rule. One resident asked whether or not the issue might return in a future meeting, while another asked why the council had not implemented a citywide requirement for the wearing of face coverings while outside, as other cities and counties had done. Another resident asked why the more than fifty comments submitted to the council prior to the April 21 meeting had not each been read by the city clerk during the virtual meeting rather than the mayor herself simply asking at the time for a quick count of how many supported or opposed the idea. She replied that the governor’s emergency orders allowed exemptions from having to follow California’s Brown Act, thereby offering a legal mechanism for her decision, but not explaining why she chose not to have the council or the public hear the content of the comments so many people took time to prepare for the meeting.
Mayor Fitzgerald referred to OCHCA efforts to roll out a COVID19 testing plan in the near future. Asked why Fulleton’s infection rate has steadily increased, she speculated that it might be related to the large population of vulnerable people in the city, referring to homeless people and those in nursing homes. The HCA will not reveal where such infections occur locally. She also said that the city council would continue to reassess what the city might be able to do about the inability of residents to pay their rent because of the crisis.
One resident asked if the city would be considering Community Choice Energy, a clean energy initiative that allows municipalities to aggregate energy purchases as an alternative to investor owned utilities as a possible component of the city’s economic recovery plan. Mayor Fitzgerald indicated that public enthusiasm for the program, along with a recent recommendation by the city’s Infrastructure and Natural Resources Advisory Committee had put the subject on the council’s “radar.” Another resident wondered when the city would take over the abandoned railway on Bastanchury. She did not know, but said she would ask city staff about it.
At least two questions were about what the mayor herself called the “horrible” condition of some of the city’s roads. Calling their condition “decades in the making,” she seemed to fault prior administrations for failing to plan for proper long term maintenance. She said it would take a long time to fix them all, but explained that aligning repairs with necessary sewer repairs allowed the city to use two-thirds of that funding for the purpose, while drawing just a third of the expense from the city’s General Fund, which would come from revenues from property sales. The city would also be pursuing funding through Measure M2 funding and proceeds from the statewide gas tax.
A question about 5G wifi networks prompted a clarification that the city was not installing 5G, but was working with a vendor to install a fiber network on every street in the city, calling it a “backhaul system.” She promised that the new fiber network would allow speeds up to ten times faster than current digital access allows. Crews, currently working in west Fullerton, are allowed to do so because telecommunications are considered essential under the current crisis rules.
Mayor Fitzgerald closed the approximately hour long streamed broadcast by saying that she was “really proud of our community. We have really come together.” A recording can be found on the city’s website.