COVID 19 – Working Together While Staying Apart

Our last article was submitted for publication before the COVID-19 crisis, which has now presented the most significant public health emergency in our lifetime. Our sincere thanks and gratitude to the thousands of dedicated public servants who comprise the SDPAA’s 427 local government Members. It is our honor as your fellow public employees to be your coverage partner as you serve your local communities.

Dealing with crises is what we governments do. As part of some Emergency Operations Centers (EOC), I learned that it is critical in any crisis to marshal all public assets and to coordinate all governmental communications to timely share all vital information with each level of government and with the public. I observed political foes at the Federal, State and local levels ignore their own conflicting political beliefs to provide a unified response. Cohesive leadership at all levels encouraged everyone to make the necessary sacrifices to successfully overcome each crisis. We worked together to rapidly rebuild the neighbor’s barn in South Dakota.

However, this latest crisis has not had the same unified response. The lack of unified messaging has dampened the public’s enthusiasm to make the required sacrifices and has prolonged this crisis. Some officials who were in a position to provide relief merely minimized the threat and failed to act in a timely manner, if they acted at all. Now South Dakota has emerged as a national virus hotspot as of this writing. These poor prognosticators delayed the rebuilding of the barn.

Ironically, this January I was talking with a former EOC team member about her conducting emergency management messaging trainings for SDPAA Members sometime later this year “when things quieted down” after possible Spring flooding. We will renew our efforts to provide that training once this crisis subsides. We had already planned to place it on video so that everyone could partake in it.

Please ensure that the SDPAA’s Member resources are part of your emergency management plan. The SDPAA offers Members free legal assistance through the Employment Practices and Government Practices Hotlines that provide Members with free expert legal advice on almost any topic. These Hotlines were available and staffed by expert attorneys able to answer any questions related to COVID-19. We also renewed the Elections Hotline to address Member questions for any upcoming elections impacted by the crisis. All three Hotlines can be reached at 1-888-313-0839.

For this crisis, we sent email blasts to all Members reminding them of the hotlines and informing them about new developments for employment practices and election practices. We talked daily with dozens of public entity lawyers on various legal developments. Our loss control vendor, Safety Benefits, Inc., served as a resource for first responder organizations and was available at any time to every SDPAA Member with one phone call or email. Your experienced SDPAA team was also available to share knowledge and to identify other available resources for any particular situation. While many Members contacted one of us, many others did not.

The SDPAA also retained one group of expert attorneys to advise our Members who had or were contemplating adopting any public health protection measures. These attorneys have extensive experience in local government/public health law and were able to combine their knowledge base to provide proactive assistance to our Members.

Your SDPAA team has been in contact with many of you throughout this crisis. Before we contacted you, many of you felt isolated. You were relieved to hear that you are not alone and that many resources were available. Local governments are proven experts in banding together to solve problems. The SDPAA is a prime example of literally pooling our efforts together as we were formed to solve the insurance crisis of the 1980’s when private insurance became practically unavailable for local governments. For those of you who currently contract for private insurance, did your private insurer offer these same resources to you throughout this crisis? Please note that your private company may be one of the same companies that abandoned you almost forty years ago during the insurance crisis.

While these efforts are extensive, the SDPAA knows that we must do more in these rapidly changing times. We will boost our efforts to effectively communicate with our 427 Members. While a phone call is usually everyone’s preference, it is difficult to quickly disseminate the same information to everyone without instant electronic communication. In the coming months, we will leverage our use of technology in launching new and better methods of instantly communicating with our Members in a more interactive manner. In the meantime, some of you need to update your technology so that you can take advantage of these newer methods of communication. For those of you who are the SDPAA contact person for your entity, please ensure that SDPAA emails are forwarded to all the right people in your organization.

This latest crisis is another reminder that local governments are the lowest hanging fruit on the government tree. Public opinion bestows upon us almost all the responsibility and the brunt of the criticisms for any issue–whether warranted or not. In order to fulfill those expectations, we must demand more from ourselves and more from our State and Federal governments. We need to utilize all public assets at every level to serve the greater good. All leaders at every level must be willing to fashion a unique response for every unique local situation, rather than steadfastly clinging to their own political beliefs that may hinder the necessary efforts to solve these real-world issues. As former New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia once said, there is no Democratic or Republican way to fix a pothole.

Stay safe and healthy!
David Pfeifle
Executive Director

The personal opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. The views do not necessarily reflect those of the SDPAA, its Board of Directors, or its Members.