City Manager Joan Riley and City Attorney David Widdoes have released a statement clarifying the city’s position on fines for violations of emergency orders issued by the Governor or Mayor after a story published last night by Sapulpa Times drew a number of comments that expressed confusion and concern about what would happen to their own utilities if they did not comply with the emergency orders.
In particular, the City took issue with the excerpt that showed up on the Sapulpa Times’ Facebook Page:
You will not be forced to wear a mask, but refusal to comply with city’s emergency ordinance could lead to a fine or having your utilities cut off.
“By referring incompletely to different items discussed at the City Council meeting,” the statement said, “the tag and article are inaccurate and left an incorrect impression and misunderstanding among citizens that is obvious from comments being circulated on social media.”
In large uppercased text, the statement made it very plain what readers were most concerned about:
TO BE CLEAR — UTILITIES WILL NOT BE CUTOFF TO RESIDENTIAL PROPERTIES FOR VIOLATIONS OF AN EMERGENCY ORDER DURING THE COVID:19 CRISIS.
The statement further says that the penalty provision which could allow utility cutoff would first require “a full hearing in Municipal Court after due process with special notice of an election to seek this penalty. This enhanced penalty is in place only to be used as a measure of last resort to obtain compliance from a business that continues to operate in violation of an emergency order and whose continuing violation creates an unreasonable risk to the public health and safety.”
The City said that the rush to get the story out led to a “distorted headline and consequent misunderstanding”:
At the City, we know that journalists try to get everything correct, but given the large amount of writing and editing that occurs with sometimes unforgiving deadlines, it is possible for a distorted headline and consequent misunderstanding to happen as it did in this situation.
The ordinance in question, which passed unanimously, states that “Any person violating any provisions of this Chapter…” and does not specifically mention business entities, which led residents to believe that they themselves were in danger of having their water shut off if they did not comply with the emergency order. The City has said that not only is that not the case, but they’ve taken steps to “keep utility accounts active” during the emergency, including removing credit card convenience fees and other processor fees from online payments, suspending penalties and late fees and will not disconnect service for non-payment that occurs during the state of emergency. The city has also said they’ll reimburse and credit back the base sewer fee to those commercial businesses with no water use that have had to close during April.