‘Sometimes you have to make hard decisions’

By on May 9, 2020

Dare Control Group at center of the COVID-19 crisis

The Control Goup’s decisions on entry to the county have been praised and criticized.

In mid-March, the Dare County Control Group was thrust into the midst of heated public debate when its members agreed to restrict entry by visitors and non-resident property owners in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Consisting primarily of the chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners and the county’s six mayors, the group has remained at center stage ever since – both applauded and criticized for its decisions during the pandemic.

The Dare Control Group has become a household name during major storm events that require coordination between the county and municipalities, convening to make what are potentially life-and-death decisions on multi-jurisdictional states of emergency, evacuations and re-entries. Indeed, the group, which does not meet in public, has been at the center of local emergency operations since the mid-1980s.

The Control Group chairman, currently Dare County Commissioners Chair Bob Woodard, calls the group of elected officials together. Also in the group are Dare County Commissioner Danny Couch, who represents Hatteras Island, the county sheriff and the superintendent of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Other officials, often the county’s emergency management director or in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dare County Health and Human Services Director Sheila Davies, will brief the Control Group on the crisis at hand.

Making decisions in the midst of a dangerous worldwide pandemic is uncharted territory for the Control Group, and during the May 5 Dare County Commissioners meeting, Woodard offered an impassioned endorsement of the group’s work, noting that it had met more than 30 times during the COVID-19 crisis.

“These folks have worked extremely, extremely hard to vet every single situation and issue that was brought before them,” he asserted. “And they’ve made sound decisions.”

According to an expert on local government, the makeup and function of the Dare Control Group are similar to operational models used in other counties across the state.

“It might not be called a Control Group and might be called something different, but it’s pretty common for counties to have some sort of communications mechanism to coordinate with the cities,” said Norma Houston, lecturer in public law and government at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s School of Government and an expert in emergency management law.

While Houston said she couldn’t provide the number of counties that have groups like Dare’s Control Group, she confirmed that “most” do.

Control Groups and similar bodies exist for two reasons, according to Houston, who also served as the Dare County Attorney in the early 2000’s and as general counsel for N.C. Senate Pro Tem Marc Basnight.

The first is that under North Carolina’ s Emergency Management Act, counties are legally responsible for coordinating emergency management functions among municipalities. The group, which is not a public body and is not subject to the state’s open meetings law, provides an opportunity for county and town officials to discuss the emergency actions the towns are going to take, Houston explained.

“Even though, operationally, cities and towns are subject to coordination with the county for their operations, cities still retain independent legal authority for declaring states of emergency and imposing restrictions and prohibitions,” she said.

As Houston explains it, each municipality has the right to make its own decisions in emergency situations, or they can consent to be part of the action agreed upon by the Control Group, which takes no formal votes and operates by consensus.

The second reason is to provide local decision makers with information in real time – such as National Weather Service bulletins and in the case of the pandemic, public health updates. The group, Houston said, essentially operates in the same way as mayors and county officials would when they meet to discuss economic situations or other issues facing counties at various times during the year.

According to their websites, Carteret and Beaufort counties have Control Groups almost identical to Dare County, while Onslow County officials collaborate with municipalities within the county via phone.

“We currently have a call with our municipal partners twice a week during this crisis to ensure we are all on the same page, and not confusing citizens with recommendations or restrictions that change as you move from unincorporated areas into municipalities,” County Manager Sharon Russell said in an email.

“We always involve local municipalities any time we will be making movement, access or other restrictions that involve all of the areas of the county, or typically with any big policy or financial change,” explained Russell, adding that the county and municipalities have all been discussing reopening plans recently.

Some version of the Dare County Control Group has been around since at least the mid-1980s, says longtime local official Bobby Owens.

Currently the mayor of Manteo, Owens at that time was serving as the chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners. He recalls that before the formation of the group and a comprehensive Emergency Operations Center, decisions during storm events typically involved him and few county officials riding along the beach when a hurricane was approaching.

“We would judge by the weather, the wind and everything, and we would decide when to call an emergency…You’re going to laugh at me, but I used to tell people I would wet my finger, stick it out the window and that’s how we could tell what was going to happen,” Owens said with a laugh.

During that time, each municipality and the county government acted more or less on their own when it came to emergencies, he explained to the Voice. “Can you imagine six mayors going six different ways, what would happen to this strip of beach,” Owens asserted. “It’s better to have a centralized group to put it all together…and everybody know what’s going on at all times.”

Although it rarely happens, mayors of municipalities are able to take action that goes against a county declaration or the consensus of the Control Group.

“A mayor has, at times, expressed a different view than others in the discussion,” Dare County Manager Bobby Outten noted.  When common ground can’t be found, he said, then the town that mayor represents does not give consent to the order and does its own order.

“For example,” Outten recalled, “in one of the hurricanes, the issue of curfews came up. Some towns wanted them while others did not, so each town did their own order and dealt with curfews as they saw fit.”

Houston also recalls another instance during Hurricane Isabel when a town within the county banned alcohol sales at a certain point when the others did not.

She said that as the pandemic hit North Carolina in mid-March, counties in the western part of the state were reaching out to her regarding the Dare County Control Group model, noting that  “People have really come to recognize and respect the organization model that Dare County has.”

From his perspective, Owens said the Control Group is essential in order for things to run smoothly county-wide during times of crisis. “Sometimes you have to make hard decisions and I will tell you this…you can’t have six of us mayors going in six different directions and then leave the chairman [of the county board of commissioners] hanging. He’s got a hard job.”


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Comments

  • neal

    Unfortunately, many of the supporters of Dare County’s closure will not be here next year to celebrate their victory.

    The bad publicity generated by the un-American armed closure of Dare, coupled with the economic turmoil caused by the shut-down, will eliminate many businesses and jobs.

    It’s the non-residents that are helping to pay for our nice beaches, schools, doctors, lawyers, roofers, builders, plumbers, shops and restaurants.

    Wise up. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

    Monday, May 11 @ 10:34 am
  • Steve

    The problem in this whole discussion is that people equate visitors and nrpo’s. Dare county is free to put in place whatever restrictions it wants to keep visitors from enjoying the outer banks. That may be unpopular, may ruin the outer banks economy, but it may well be the right decision from a health perspective, and noone’s rights are being violated by doing so.

    But homeowners are not “visitors”. Like it or not, non-residents have been “allowed” to purchase homes in your precious community, and part of that ownership is a right to the peaceful enjoyment to said PRIVATE property.

    So now you are stuck with us. Its unfortunate that so many “locals” now seem to have an opinion that property owners can’t be expected to follow simple rules and are somehow reduced to germ-carrying vagrants that are not to be trusted.

    DCCG should definitely be giving serious thought to how to control the masses of visitors that will now be inbound as the warm season arrives. All they have really accomplished by this restrictions is a delay of the inevitable – covid is coming, now in May instead of March.

    But drop the BS about the dangers nrpo’s cause to your community. That has been a bogus line of reason from day one, and who knows, you may just find you need their help in the challenging weeks and months ahead. Division is never good policy.

    Monday, May 11 @ 12:41 pm
  • Living the dream

    To those with negative comments, it’s okay if you sell your homes, and don’t spend money here. Bring all your supplies, so you will not deplete the shelves of our stores needlessly. Hire people from outside the area to do your work and buy your materials remotely as well, so your cost will be higher. That all makes good sense, right? I work at an essential business that has been open throughout this awkward time, and I have seen the best come out in most people, but I have also seen the worst in a few. A few bad apples spoil the whole basket, and the entitled- minded ones have been the worst. The health of an entire community should not be compromised by the selfish wants of any non-resident, property owner or not. Our hospital has 21 beds, and our population percentage of older people and retirees is higher than most areas. While we welcome the majority of our non-residents back, it’s the selfish, impatient, greedy ones like you that we don’t want or need.

    Monday, May 11 @ 1:09 pm
  • Trashcan Man

    It occurs to me that the argument to open up the local economy to tourists [who else?] is self-defeating. Why would you want to kill your customers?

    Monday, May 11 @ 8:36 pm
  • Lulu

    I have lived here 45 years and I am sick and tired of these self entitled people that don’t give a crap about anything but themselves and their 2nd or 3rd home. I have been kind on my responses but no more. You don’t like the way we do things here, then carry your sorry ars across the bridge and never come back. Someone will take your place that respects our Island and the way we take care of each other, and also our caring tourists. Too soon y’all, just saying. Love and peace and God Bless.

    Monday, May 11 @ 8:43 pm
  • Shell

    What I’m not seeing on here is anything positive. This sucks for everyone. I’m a true native of kitty hawk, without people spending money here we have no paycheck.lifting mask requirements is ridiculous. Remember your kids are watching and listening.

    Monday, May 11 @ 10:22 pm
  • sandflea

    @ Taxation Without Representation:
    You do know when that was written in 1761 when that was first said that there was in fact taxation without representation.
    TODAY we (YOU) in fact have representation for taxation.

    Tuesday, May 12 @ 8:21 am
  • OBXhome

    Sandflea, while I don’t think you actually care which constitutional rights are being violated, I’ll answer your question anyway.
    There are multiple violations of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution which guarantee, in pertinent part, that “No person shall be … deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” The counties have also violated the privileges and immunities clause which they are currently being sued over. By creating multiple classes of citizens, they have also violated the equal protection clause. It’s too bad your county boards and “news” organizations keep you so ignorant. It makes you easier to control, I guess.

    Tuesday, May 12 @ 10:04 am
  • VirusHereToStay

    Wow. A lot of fear. I think I read that Dare County has a 4.3 million shortfall. Without businesses re-opening and tourists that deficit is going to get worse. If you do not want economic activity then plan on not having as much police and firemen. Expect crime to increase. Say goodbye to grocery stores and restaurants. Say goodbye to street lights and other basic infrastructure repairs. Not likely to get much support from outside the county if you attempt to isolate yourself from the rest of the world.

    Is it really lawful to prevent any American citizen from entering any American county? No, of course not, at least not without a state of emergency at the federal or state level, and maybe not even then. County governments cannot override basic law. The county would just be sued and further in debt. There is nothing Dare County or any other county can do to keep anyone from traveling to and fro.

    Is the virus going to go away? Nope. It will take about 70 percent of the population exposed to get decent herd immunity. Estimates out of NY suggest 20% have been exposed.

    Fear is a powerful emotion. But always being fearful is not living.

    Tuesday, May 12 @ 3:42 pm
  • wombatnc

    @NRPO,
    Buy high, sell low – see ya!
    @ OBXhome – life proceeds property (pursuit of happiness) in the Preamble. The common good (majority) have rights that can and do override those of the minority. This has been common place throughout US history during times of crisis.
    I think where the Control Group messed up was with the whole alphabet thing with the npro’s. They should’ve let ’em all come on a certain date and not opened up to tourists until next weekend (Memorial Day). They’ve done a pretty decent job taking advantage of the fact that we can easily shut down access while understanding our limited resources (hospital) and our demographics (older folks). Not an easy decision to make. As mentioned above, this group should be more transparent with meetings open to the public to view on-line.

    Wednesday, May 13 @ 8:23 am
  • sandflea

    OBXhome:
    Wow. Did you get that “info” from your pocket Constitution? NOBODY has seized your property! It’s still yours! The EMERGENCY declaration was made by the ELECTED officials. Your “rights” stop at my/our nose, mouth and eyes where this virus enters the body. Remember, the first word in the Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness is LIFE! Its not just YOUR life! The hub of the world does not rotate thru your rear end. The equal protection is that we are trying to protect EVERYBODY from getting sick and/or dying. Sorry, your money and access to your SECOND or THIRD home is not as important as our lives! By reading your post, to me, you seem to be someone who would be likely to attend one of these rallies” where everyone was milling around WITHOUT masks at the capitol buildings around the country protesting common sense rules that have been TEMPORARILY put in place. Those people are in a MUCH HIGHER risk category; and by raw numbers, some of those people will be coming down here.

    Btw, I am far from ignorant. I’ve probably forgotten more than you will ever know and I’ve got the credentials to back that up. I get my “news” from REAL NEWS SOURCES like the majority of the people in this country.

    So, with that being said, I’m more than happy to have your I, ME, MY attitude not being around me or my family or friends. In fact, I would be more than happy if you sold your place and went to some other location such as Georgia or Florida where they are a beautiful petri dish for this virus. Thankfully, our governor has A LOT more common sense than those two.

    Wednesday, May 13 @ 8:30 am
  • Tom

    NRPO as it gets!

    I set foot in Dare County over the weekend. Here are my observations:

    1. I wore a cloth face covering when I showed my documentation to the Law Enforcement road block at the Wright Memorial Bridge. The Law Enforcement officers were not wearing surgical masks, respirators, or cloth face coverings. Why not? This occurred on 2 occasions.

    2. I wore a cloth face covering when I purchased carry out food on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I observed the local restaurant workers/owners to be wearing a variety of face coverings, face shields, and gloves. I thanked the restaurant workers for serving me. I asked them what they thought about the Dare County Control Group and all of the restaurant owners/workers had bad things to say. Two of the restaurants indicated they will likely be out of business if/when the Dare County Control Group closes the bridges again.

    3. I observed many Local as it Gets people not wearing any face coverings. I observed many NRPO’s wearing face coverings and why not, it’s what we do in our home towns, in areas where we have been dealing with COVID-19 safely for much longer than simple Dare County.

    4. I got gasoline and I wore a cloth face covering and used a rubber glove on my hand to operate the pump. I observed 3 other locals not wearing any face coverings while pumping their gas. Why not? A pool cleaner pickup truck, a repairman van, a woman who had a rental company logo on her vehicle. None of them were wearing any protection. Why not?

    My conclusion is that NRPOs are doing a better job caring about those around them. NRPOs are doing a better job about trying to stop the spread. NRPOs actually wear face coverings when in retail settings.

    Very discouraging that the Law Enforcement officers weren’t wearing face coverings. The first local people I encountered had no regard for my safety or their own. Disappointing.

    Wednesday, May 13 @ 9:55 am
  • Louise

    I don’t know what area of the beach you are going, but everyone I see are wearing face coverings. Restaurant employees doing carryout as well as the chef’s and they are also wearing gloves while cooking the food. How do I know this, we frequent these restaurants and I know most everyone of them as I am a restaurant worker, and have been for 45 years. Also, all grocery store workers are wearing them. Except for the few out of towners getting out of there cars and walking right into the store. One stood right behind my grown son without a mask one foot from him. Please, for the sake of our community and our tourists, wear face coverings. It’s not that hard to understand.

    Friday, May 15 @ 6:33 pm
  • READ THE GUIDANCE

    I find it interesting that people, regardless of where they live…. feel they have the right to tell anyone that they are doing something wrong by not wearing a mask here in Dare county…….We are following the guidance of our local elected officials….masks are Not required here…..Even if they are where you may have traveled from and/ or you think they should be….That would be your opinion….. which you are entitled to but should not force on anyone that does not agree with you. Regardless of where you normally live…if you are here now…….. you are in Dare county and should respect the guidance and residents that live here. If you choose to wear a mask to “protect” yourself nobody will judge you for doing so…….It’s still a free country . If you choose not to patronize a business where you do not feel comfortable that is your choice as well.

    I can assure you that the locals and Essential business’s have been here for months during this pandemic….trying to do the right thing……maintaining social distancing , and staying at home when sick……..We have had one death , and we are deeply sorry for that families loss…..We have less than 20 cases on the OBX …I think the community has proven over time the ability to be safe , protect those around us, while trying to live as normal a life as possible. Isn’t that what everyone wants?

    And most importantly we are all adults , able to make decisions on our own and follow our hearts and brains to do what we feel is right. Everyone is welcome here..that is what makes the OBX such a special place……..So continue to do what you want, go where you feel comfortable, protect yourselves however you feel you need to …..but do not judge business’s and people that are serving you and who are just following the local guidance.

    Saturday, May 16 @ 1:30 am