February 13, 2014

Curfew confusion

Rachel Brown

— A last-minute curfew in Whitfield County may have raised a few eyebrows, but it also helped public works crews clear roads more efficiently and potentially prevented many road wrecks, Whitfield County officials said.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Mike Babb said he authorized the curfew from 9 p.m. Wednesday to 10 a.m. Thursday. He said he did so after speaking with Emergency Management Director Claude Craig about conditions since the area got several inches of snow this week with temperatures wavering between slightly above and slightly below freezing for most of the three-day stretch of off-and-on snow and rain.

Babb said this is the first time in his 13 years in office he’s used a local ordinance that allows the commission chairman to declare a local state of emergency under which local officials are given certain emergency powers, including the power to enact a curfew. Violating the curfew is a misdemeanor.

“As far as I know, it hasn’t been a big problem for anybody,” Babb said Thursday afternoon. “Our main thing was to keep (people) off the roads, especially when the plows were out there.”

A Whitfield County jail official said no one had been brought in on charges related to the curfew Wednesday night. While some travelers said their employers required them to report to work despite the curfew, officials from the Dalton Police Department and Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office said no one, to their knowledge, was cited for violating the curfew. Officials said many people were confused about the order and had questions after it was announced through area news media Wednesday night. Others said they didn’t even know there was a curfew in place.

The county ordinance states a curfew makes it unlawful for anyone to “travel, loiter, wander or stroll in or upon the public streets, highways, roads, lanes, parks or other public grounds, public places, public buildings, places of amusement, eating places, vacant lots or any other place” while the curfew is in effect.

The curfew didn’t apply to “authorized and essential” emergency responders such as law enforcement personnel, health care providers, firefighters and utility repair crews. It also didn’t apply to citizens “seeking to restore order to their homes or businesses while on their own property or place of business.”

The commission chair must state in writing why the state of emergency is being declared and what changes it will mean for the community. According to the ordinance, “No state of local emergency shall continue for longer than 30 days, unless renewed by the chair.” Also, the board of commissioners can pass a resolution to end a state of local emergency — which by extension would end any curfews — at anytime.

“It is nothing more than a safety device,” Babb said of the curfew. “This is still America, and I can’t just go out here on a pretty day and declare I’m going to put a curfew in.”

The curfew met with some criticism in certain circles and on social media. One commenter on The Daily Citizen’s Facebook page asked if martial law had been declared. “Or did we miss the due process in this memo?” the commenter wrote. Others supported the restrictions.

“The curfew did not bother me. I believe that it was a good call and kept people safe,” said Resaca resident Andrew Evans. “It was key in accident prevention which in turn would minimize the strain put on emergency services.”

What else does the ordinance allow in a declared local emergency?

The commission chair can require evacuations under certain circumstances and specify which routes evacuees are to take; “suspend or limit” sales and transportation of alcoholic beverages, firearms, explosives and flammable substances; suspend local laws and ordinances regulating county agencies if those laws would hinder response; and provide “benefits to citizens” through grant monies to help those “adversely affected” by the emergency.

It also includes provisions to guard against price-gouging during or shortly after a declared state of emergency.

Under the code, anyone who doesn’t comply can be charged with a misdemeanor and face a fine up to $1,000 and/or up to 60 days in jail. Officials said the circumstances would have had to have been extraordinary for anyone to be taken to jail for violating this curfew.

Craig said he supported imposing a curfew after learning public works crews were unable to clear the roads efficiently because of traffic.

“Last night, we got to the point where we couldn’t work,” Craig said. “Our public works people couldn’t treat the roads (because) there were just so many people out.”

Public Works Director Dewayne Hunt said his crews have been working for days, most of them catching sleep in their work vehicles or on cots at gymnasiums and fire stations set up for that purpose.

“Early in the evening (Wednesday) before the snow actually hit hard there after midnight a lot of traffic was on the roads,” Hunt said. “The curfew helps us if people obey it so we’ve got more room to operate.”

Hunt said crews did have a window during which to work once the curfew was imposed and traffic thinned out, but the snow by then had begun falling so quickly that crews had to stop temporarily. They began again around 5 a.m. Thursday, he said, and were able to complete most of their work by the time the curfew lifted at 10 a.m. Hunt said he was glad to see the sun melting everything away.

“The curfew really does help us if folks abide by it just temporarily,” he said.