IN GOVERNMENT, as in life, what gets the most attention is often a matter of priorities. It’s hard to focus on too much at once, so the most important things get pushed to the top of the to-do list.
Sometimes, though, even setting out an agenda of top priorities doesn’t seem to be enough. Lately, when public officials want to call attention to a particularly urgent item on that to-do list, a state of emergency declaration seems to be the exclamation mark used for added emphasis.
Last month, Gov. Maura Healey declared a state of emergency due to the enormous influx of migrants to Massachusetts. In a letter to US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Healey proclaimed, as governor, that “there now exists in the Commonwealth a state of emergency due to rapid and unabating increasing in the number of families with children and pregnant people – many of them newly arriving migrants and refugees – living within the state but without the means to secure safe shelter in our communities.”
The influx of migrants has overwhelmed state shelters, with the number of people seeking emergency housing up 80 percent from a year ago, Healey said at a press briefing announcing the emergency declaration. She urged the federal government to provide more aid to supplement the more than $45 million a month the state was spending on services for migrants, and called on the Biden administration to use executive powers it has to speed approval of work authorization for the new arrivals.
Healey said she was directing all members of her administration to “continue to utilize and operationalize all means to secure housing, shelter, and health and human services to address this humanitarian crisis.”
What she did not do, however, was invoke any special powers that can come with an emergency declaration. The state website says a governor may declare a state of emergency “in the event or imminent threat of a natural or man-made disaster” and that he or she may issue executive orders that “are to be treated as law and may override existing law for the course of the disaster.”
Under the state of emergency declaration he issued during the height of the COVID pandemic, for example, then-Gov. Charlie Baker imposed capacity limits on workplace settings and a statewide mask mandate.
Healey’s emergency declaration alluded to special powers the governor may exercise, but did not spell out any specific actions she was taking at this time that would “override existing law.”
It is “both an alert and a call to action,” said Healey spokesperson Karissa Hand.
The declaration of a state of emergency seemed to be as much a statement of urgency.
Meanwhile, on Friday, a group of four Boston city councilors issued a call for the city’s public health commission to declare a state of emergency concerning the problems in the Mass. and Cass area, the epicenter of an ongoing crisis of homelessness and drug addiction.
“We have reached a stage where dramatic intervention is vital,” said the letter, co-authored by Erin Murphy, Frank Baker, Ed Flynn, and Michael Flaherty.
No one disputes the idea that the situation has become intolerable. But the councilors’ letter, which cites the recent state emergency declaration on the migrant crisis and says the Mass. and Cass crisis is no less dire, did not spell out any steps an emergency declaration could enable that are not currently within the city’s power to carry out.
“I agree we can use the powers and resources we have, but we’re not,” said Murphy. “I’m hoping to get a conversation going. What is it you guys need and what more can your department do?”
The Wu administration, which is pushing a city ordinance that would give police clear authorization to remove the tent encampment in the Mass. and Cass area, is giving a cold shoulder to the councilors’ call, and said actions are more important than words.
“The Mayor is waiting on legislative action from Councilors to move forward with needed public safety changes at Mass and Cass and across the city,” a city spokesperson said in a statement. “We urge this Council to move beyond symbolic gestures and pass the proposed ordinance expeditiously.”