Three times during Thursday’s special-call meeting, Columbus Mayor Keith Gaskin concluded his comments on the mask mandate under consideration by the city council by saying it would be his final word on the subject.
But by the time the matter was settled, Gaskin had the final word, breaking the council’s 3-3 tie and voting against a proposal that would have mandated masks to be worn indoors in all public spaces in the city to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
The impasse that led to Gaskin’s deciding vote came after Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens and Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones joined Ward 1 Councilwoman Ethel Stewart, who voted to support a mandate. Stewart proposed the mandate and was its strongest advocate during the 30-minute discussion.
Ward 3 Councilman Rusty Greene, Ward 4 Councilman Pierre Beard and Ward 6 Councilwoman Jacqueline DiCicco voted against the mandate.
When the votes were counted, Gaskin, whose earlier comments supported mask wearing but stopped short of mandating masks, broke the tie that defeated the mandate.
“I vote to not have a city mask mandate,’” Gaskin said. “Again, I urge everyone to be respectful to one another and be courteous to our council members. They all had very good points that should be respected.”
The vote came after the council voted on Aug. 18 to impose a mask mandate in all city buildings, but tabled Stewart’s call for a citywide mandate until Thursday.
“My mind is more favorable to a mask mandate today than it was (then),” said Stewart, who opened the discussion on the mask mandate. “We’ve had six children in Mississippi who have passed away. When you look at the science and see what’s going on with the virus now, you cannot deny the fact that we have a serious problem. Last time, (Police) Chief (Fred) Shelton said it would be taxing on the police department to enforce a mask mandate. All I would say to the chief is, ‘Do the best you can to protect the citizens.’ Will there be 100 percent compliance? I doubt it. But if we don’t make some effort to say, ‘wear your mask,’ what are we here for?”
In his comments, Gaskin repeatedly stated his support for mask wearing and other precautions, noting that both the county and city had implemented mask requirements in the buildings they own and that Mississippi University for Women and the county school district recently joined the city school district in requiring mask wearing at their facilities.
But instead of requiring those mandates to extend citywide, Gaskin believes the best role the city could play would be continuing to provide information and guidance. He said enforcing the mandate would be “almost impossible.”
“I think it’s incumbent on the leadership to take this very seriously and work with us in educating the community,” Gaskin said, noting that some businesses have their own mask requirements and that the administration should support those efforts. “We need to give citizens the info they need to make good decisions.”
DiCicco said she opposed the mandate after hearing from citizens who oppose it.
“People have contacted me who have medical concerns, people with COPD and have children who cannot wear a mask,” she said. “I think we can let people know it’s important (to wear a mask), but it’s a personal decision. If you see someone not wearing a mask, you can go the other direction, and it’s not like if I don’t wear a mask I’m going to give you COVID. You have to give people freedom.”
Greene said there is a better option for city leadership.
“I still like people making their own choice, and more and more people are choosing to wear the masks,” he said. “I think we would get a whole lot more results from urging people to please wear your mask than mandating it and having our police department chasing 911 calls about people not wearing masks. But the main reason I’m going to vote no is because our businesses don’t need to have an extra burden. They are struggling already.”
Jones noted there are many laws on the books that the city does not attempt to enforce broadly.
“I don’t wear my seatbelt sometimes,” Jones said. “Does that mean we shouldn’t require seat belts?”
Jones also pushed back on how the business community would respond.
“If you recall, it was masks that allowed businesses to re-open,” he said. “I think there may be more support for this than you think.”
Stewart said voting against a mask mandate was tantamount to the city contradicting itself.
“If (the mask mandate) isn’t the right thing to do, why did we mandate masks at city buildings at the last meeting?” she said. “Do you think the only place people are going to get COVID is at City Hall? Do you think people can’t get it at Kroger or Dollar Tree?”
Gaskin acknowledged Stewart’s concern.
“I respect Councilman Stewart’s feelings on this and understand her frustration,” Gaskin said. “These are unprecedented times.”
Gaskin again cast the deciding vote on another agenda item, selecting the city’s representative on the Golden Triangle Development LINK Board of Directors.
The council voted to table the appointment during the Aug. 18 meeting to open up the position to more applicants after neither of the first two applicants — Colin Krieger and Quincy Harris — received enough votes to be appointed.
By Thursday, five more people had applied — Bill West, Chad Thomas, Doug Estes, Josh Read and Clifton Scott.
A motion to appoint Krieger was followed by substitute motions to appoint West then Harris.
The council voted in reverse order; Harris failed to be appointed by a 4-2 vote. The motion to appoint West, a local banker, ended with a 3-3 tie. Gaskin voted in favor of West’s nomination. He will begin his two-year term on Oct. 1.
The council voted unanimously to refinance the $3 million balance left on the 15-year repaving bond issued in 2014. Lynn Norris, the city’s bond consultant, presented three options, the first two having been accepted by two local banks. Norris said he would present the third option to the banks if the council preferred it.
The city currently pays 3 percent interest on the bonds. All three options would cut the interest rate to slightly above 1 percent and save the city between $174,000 and $179,000 over the remaining years of the loan, which ends in 2029.
The council voted to ask for the banks to accept the third option, which would back-load the savings for the highest amount — $179,000.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]