Commentary: Delaware General Assembly should activate emergency plan

By Bill Bowden

When will our state legislature activate an emergency plan and get back to work?

On March 18th, the Delaware General Assembly postponed their session indefinitely over concerns of the spread of COVID-19 in the First State. Since then we have not heard anything from this group. We have seen various articles where individual legislators are working to help meet the needs of their constituents, but the legislative branch remains shut down.

Our state’s executive branch got up to speed almost immediately thanks to their commitment to disaster recovery and continuity of operations planning. This initiative started with the Minner administration, and was embraced and enhanced by Gov. Markell and now Gov. Carney. These plans are in support of the oversight and direction from Delaware’s Emergency Management Agency. This detailed pre-planning mandates that every agency plan has guidelines and procedures to help guide a response to disasters like floods, blizzards, environmental disasters, major power failures, terrorist attacks, and even disease, like we are experiencing now. 

Bill Bowden

Every agency has a plan, exercised every two years, that prepares for the continuance of operations in the case of catastrophic events; primarily driven by the processes a business unit performs. This includes identifying what resources will be needed for a speedy recovery and/or maintenance of services. 

These plans gave the executive branch a head start in responding to the pandemic. Thanks to the hard work of pre-planning, these agencies are providing vital services essential to our citizens’ health and welfare in Delaware. This response includes expanded use of technology like conference calling, video conferencing, and work-at-home strategies when possible.

Our judicial branch activated their emergency plan, augmented by various standing orders, to keep essential court business moving along. Delaware court facilities have been closed to the public with some employees working in the office and some from home. Through technology, the courts continue to operate in a virtual manner.

Various news articles have highlighted how the governance of our school boards, towns, cities, and all three counties are finding ways to keep Delaware moving forward in this difficult time. These entities are embracing technology to run hearings and meetings while providing for public oversight and input. Some are learning on the fly as they deploy these strategies.

So some questions remain for our General Assembly. 

Do they have a disaster recovery and continuity of operations plan? When are they going to activate it? 

If they had no pre-planning, are they working to put a response together?

Lawmakers across the country have rushed to pass resolutions permitting virtual meetings and remote voting, efforts they said were necessary to adhere to social distancing guidelines and protect legislators. 

In Arkansas, the 100-member House met in the basketball arena at the University of Arkansas for a special session instead of the Capitol because of social distance concerns about COVID-19. Ohio legislators met with each member in a separate room. Others like New York and New Jersey changed the rules to permit voting by “remote means, including but not limited to teleconference or video conference.” 

According to the National Conference of State Legislators over 20 states have passed rule changes to legislative operations in response to this pandemic.

Delaware’s constitution gives the General Assembly wide latitude to change rules in order to ensure the continuity of our government.

“ARTICLE XVII. CONTINUITY OF GOVERNMENTAL OPERATIONS

§ 1. Continuity of state and local governmental operations in periods of emergency.

Section 1. The General Assembly, in order to insure continuity of State and local governmental operations in periods of emergency resulting from enemy attack, terrorism, disease, accident, or other natural or man-made disaster, shall have the power and the immediate duty (1) to provide for prompt and temporary succession to the powers and duties of public offices whose immediate succession is not otherwise provided for by this Constitution, of whatever nature and whether filled by election or appointment, the incumbents of which may become unavailable for carrying on the powers and duties of such offices, and (2) to adopt such other measures as may be necessary and proper for insuring the continuity of governmental operations. In the exercise of the powers conferred by this section, the General Assembly shall in all respects conform to the requirements of this Constitution except to the extent that in the judgment of the General Assembly to do so would be impracticable or would cause undue delay.”

I would like to see our General Assembly modernize their approach to government and embrace the tools of technology as a way to help Delaware start moving ahead again! We need to keep Delaware moving forward during this difficult time.

Our legislators want to help, they need to help, and by embracing technology they can more effectively help. It is time to get back to work!

Bill Bowden is a retired Verizon Delaware executive, past president of the Delaware Quality Award, and served for 8 years as the executive director of Delaware’s Department of Technology and Information.