Eastern Oregon county leaders fed up with governor's COVID-19 reopening plan
A group of Eastern Oregon county commissioners met unannounced Thursday, June 11, in Prairie City to share common frustrations over Gov. Kate Brown's closures amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fed up with Brown's unilateral authority to reopen the state and control how federal aid money will be disbursed, representatives from seven Eastern Oregon counties strategized about getting their voices heard in Salem and discussed what the consequences of standing up to the governor might be.
Along with Jefferson County Commissioners Mae Huston and Kelly Simmelink, commissioners from Grant, Lake, Deschutes, Wallowa, Harney and Union counties agreed county health departments should determine when counties are able to open and establish local guidelines.
Dubbed an "information seminar," organized by Lake County Commissioner Mark Albertson, the event was not announced to the public or the media. Reporters from the Blue Mountain Eagle and Oregon Public Broadcasting negotiated their way into the event as some of the representatives were reluctant to enter the Prairie City Visitors Center.
"We did not know the press was showing up," Albertson said. "It's spooky, and it's, to be honest with you, it's spooky because all of us have been burned."
Simmelink told the Pioneer he received an email from Albertson about the meeting.
"I wanted to hear the concerns and real-life stories of other counties from my colleagues," he said in an email interview. "I find it extremely helpful to gather as much information and hear possible options in moving forward. Each county has a different perspective on where they are now and where they want to be in later phases."
He said the relationships he has made with many of the attendees has been helpful.
"We truly care about each other, and I think this get together solidified that we all have concerns about our schools, our economies and our constituents' rights and health," he said. "With as many things that have happened to Jefferson County in the last three months, it's a great feeling to be able to feel the support not only those in your community, but from outside as well.
The lack of public notice for the meeting has garnered criticism from some in the county.
According to the state Attorney General's office handbook on public meetings law, "Public Meetings Law applies not only to formal 'meetings' of governing bodies but also to circumstances in which a quorum 'meets' to deliberate toward or make a decision outside of the context of a 'meeting.'"
Kim Schmith is running for a seat on the commission. She said she'd had at least 16 messages from people upset after OPB reported on the meeting.
"As far as going to the meeting is concerned, I don't know if that meeting is in the actual job description of a county commissioner," Schmith said. "I can tell you right now, it is not appropriate for two county commissioners to be at a meeting without public notice ... Public notification is vital."
She said the county is divided about how to deal with stay-home restrictions from the governor, but she wonders about flouting state rules.
"At what point do I get to do something because I don't like the policy?" she said, adding that she can't drive 75 miles per hour because she doesn't like the speed limit.
That said, she understands the frustration.
"This is kind of like brushing your teeth," she said. "It's not a lot of fun, but you have to do it."
As far as what was said at the meeting, "I don't know about the meeting because I wasn't informed," she said. "I didn't have the ability to go, and that's the problem."
Simmelink said he wasn't intending to attend a public meeting.
"I went to listen to the concerns shared by other Easter Oregon county commissioners with hopes of gathering information to bring back to our board and our constituents," he said. "I did not engage in deliberations and made absolutely not decisions for Jefferson County. I will (err) on the side of caution going forward to ensure that only one of us is present, if ever an opportunity like this presents itself."
He said the meeting made him "more aware of how some of the guidelines are affecting counties with more limited resources/options and very little to no COVID-related issues."
Efforts to reach Huston by email Monday afternoon and phone Tuesday morning were unsuccessful.
Grant County Commissioner Sam Palmer said after the meeting he believes rural people and viewpoints are often mocked in the press and not taken seriously, much like he believes state leaders in Salem ignore rural sentiments.
"I guess the main point is we're being culturally oppressed, because, I mean in rural counties, not one county in a rural area has received any money and very little help," Albertson said at Thursday's meeting. "And none of us have had direct contact with the governor."
The meeting came to be after months of conference calls with state health officials and growing frustrations with the governor's guidelines to combat the coronavirus outbreak that have wreaked havoc on local economies.
The tipping point, said Albertson, came after a recent conference call with the Oregon Association of Counties and the Oregon Health Authority. On the call, he said, a representative from a county asked if protesters, primarily in Portland, would be contact-traced. According to Albertson, a health official on the call said that the protesters' cause was just and the state would not infringe upon their rights to peacefully protest.
The demonstrations in response to the death of George Floyd — a black man who died May 25 after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes — have occurred in rural and urban communities across the state. However, the commissioners focused primarily on large demonstrations in Portland where large crowds violated the governor's guidelines for social distancing.
Wallowa County Commissioner Susan Roberts said an official, whom she did not identify, told her the state would "deal with it" if they saw an uptick in positive COVID-19 cases as a result of the protests.
"In other words, you can protest, but we can't go to church," Albertson said in an email to the commissioners after the Health Authority call. "You can protest but can't go to a ball game, you can protest, but you can't have a fair or rodeo."
Harney County Commissioner Kristen Shelman said the "top-down" approach of the governor's executive order does not sit well with rural residents. She said she was specifically concerned about the governor's guidelines requiring a COVID-19 vaccine or treatment before the final stage of opening, and possible requirements for vaccination.
"Within that executive order, we should all be rounded up and given the vaccine without our permission," she said.
"And it goes right back to the cultural oppression," Albertson said. "That is definitely culture. Us on this side of the mountain are not treated the same."
The commissioners said having to cancel their county fairs because of the guidelines has a big impact on rural communities.
"The fair is the one thing that brings all of our counties together," Palmer said.
Other commissioners pointed to canceled graduations, closed schools and rules about reopening businesses, which, they said, face unique challenges in rural areas.
Roberts said she wrote a letter asking Brown's office to lift all restrictions in Wallowa County by June 30. The county leaders went back and forth on a date and said each should be able to determine their own reopening guidelines.
Hamsher said the counties should wait a couple of weeks to see if the wave of protests would lead to a surge in cases. Many people who contract the disease remain asymptomatic for as much as two weeks.
He said he hoped the state did not see an uptick. "If we don't, then we might have more of a justification to open back up," he said.
According to Oregon's phased reopening plans, many activities can resume with limited social gatherings under Phase 2, which most counties in Eastern Oregon are in. The third and final phase of reopening would bring the state back to normal, but it is not an option for any county until vaccination or treatment is available under the governor's guidelines.
Albertson said he questions the reporting data coming from the state's health authority. He said he did the math and the chances of dying from COVID-19 are very low.
Roberts said the counties took the pandemic seriously and did everything the state asked them to do.
"We are prepared to meet the challenge in our community," she said. "Our medical people say they're ready, they're prepared."
The county representatives said they want their respective health departments to be the authority, rather than relying on one-size-fits-all guidance from the governor.
Hours after the meeting, the governor's office announced that it was putting a hold on reopening the state after 178 new cases were reported Thursday, according to the Health Authority's website. Half of those cases were in Multnomah and Clackamas counties. Only eight of those cases were in the seven counties represented at Thursday's meeting.
Steven Mitchell is a reporter with the Blue Mountain Eagle, part of the consortium of Oregon newspapers within the Oregon Capital Bureau.
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