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Anger, fear, tears over COVID restrictions and community safety play out during Tuesday meeting

Tension rattled the Madras City Council chambers Tuesday, Jan. 26. Thirty-eight people sat in chairs or stood around the perimeter of the room, another 30 spilled out into the hall, and still more joined online. Before the meeting ended, one councilor raged out of the room, a citizen called for the resignation of another councilor, and the panel reversed their stance.

People anxiously waited to make their case about something the city council didn't do: send a letter to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown supporting Madras businesses.

"What a slap in the face! You have no idea what we are going through." Jennifer DuPont, owner of Wild Winds Station Bar & Grill, says she's gone hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt since the first pandemic closures in March. "The mayor graciously brought a letter that the Redmond City Council sent to the governor of Oregon standing up for their businesses. All he did was ask if we could do the same for our businesses in this city. And (the Madras City Council) voted no."

"I think it's an embarrassment for all of you that you did not vote to send this letter," says Joe Robbins, owner of Madtown Fitness, a Madras health club. "I think you should be ashamed of yourselves. The three that did vote for it, we thank you."

At the Jan. 12 council meeting, Mayor Richard Ladeby proposed sending a letter to Gov. Brown patterned after letters signed by Redmond City Councilors in support of allowing local restaurants and possibly gyms to open. Councilors Bartt Brick, Royce Embanks, Austin Throop and Rose Canga voted against the idea. Councilors Jennifer Holcomb and Gary Walker voted in favor.

City Administrator Gus Burril notes the letter had not been on the agenda for the Jan. 12 meeting, and councilors hadn't had an opportunity to discuss the language of such a letter.

Still, the decision not to send a letter infuriated some business owners and citizens.

"And that was deplorable, truly deplorable," said Maurice Langsev, of Culver.

"It is disgusting to citizens that you won't go on the record to support the small businesses in our community who are struggling financially," says Mae Huston, a Jefferson County commissioner from Culver.

"We're in a huge battle here. It's a spiritual battle, it's a physical battle, and we're losing," Teresa Baggett, of Madras. testified through tears.

Then came an explosive moment, even though the exchange had the least to do with the matter at hand.

Bob Williams, of Culver, addressed Councilman Royce Embanks directly. "Here's what I find offensive, sir, is your wife, which I have on film and pictures, following my wife and scaring her because you don't agree with the First Amendment."

Apparently, in a battle of the cameras, Williams took photos of Judy Embanks photographing Williams' wife, who was taking part in an Open Oregon demonstration.

Embanks countered, "I find it offensive and cowardly that you would come and talk to me about something my wife has done." As Embanks raised his voice, Ladeby tried to quiet him, but Embanks continued. "No, God damn it, I don't have to sit here and take this (stuff) from him." Ladeby asked Embanks to be quiet or leave. Embanks chose to leave, saying as he left, "He's not even wearing a mask. How many of you are wearing a mask?"

Many, if not most, of the guests in the chambers were not wearing masks, which has become another cultural dividing point in the COVID era.

Carrie Graeme objected to the mask Councilor Throop wore. "Mr. Throop's BLM (Black Lives Matter) mask is not OK. BLM is a terrorist organization. It's offensive to me and to many others. I call for his resignation."

Ladeby quickly stepped in, "OK, we have freedom of expression. I'm not here to judge anybody. I'm here to make sure we have order."

"I don't wear a mask. I've never worn a mask," said Scott Stuart, with Christian Ministries Insurance of Redmond, and spokesperson for We the People, the group who reserved time on the council meeting agenda.

"My goal is to inform you of some things you may or may not be aware of." Stuart walked the council through a Power Point presentation explaining the difference between a law and a mandate, the definition of an epidemic, and making an impassioned plea to the city council.

"More than 2 million Oregonians are being held hostage, wearing masks, social distancing, and locking their businesses down for 2,000 people," said Stuart about the nearly 2,000 Oregonians who have died with COVID. "We the People do not trust the government. I'm being nice here. I don't trust the media, and I don't trust the state, and we have no help. We are all alone."

"Sign the letter. For God's sake, help these people."

"I'm 61 years old," continued Stuart. "I have never seen evil, malevolence and insidiousness like I have seen today."

Wendy Gessler would argue evil, malevolence and insidiousness exists on both sides of this debate. "The first part of that presentation sounded threatening. Any kind of language that gets so overbearing scares me."

Councilors who voted against the letter say they had valid reasons. "I believe the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), the World Health Organization, and my doctor," says Councilor Bartt Brick. "I'm 71 years old. I've got heart issues." Brick's doctor told him he'd be in real trouble if he got COVID and would probably die.

Councilor Rose Canga is a nurse. "For me, I continue to wear masks because I care deeply for my family, friends, and everyone in the community." She agrees with most medical professionals that masks help stop the spread of the virus at its source, source control. "This gives us hope the virus will be eradicated."

After an hour of intense testimony, Brick and Canga softened.

"If I were to sign a letter that said 'Governor, please let us do it our way. We'll follow the CDC guidelines,'" says Brick. "I'd be willing to reconsider. I'd be eager."

"Following CDC guidelines," says Canga. "So, I'm willing to sign your letter following your guidelines."

Even Councilor Austin Throop, originally a hard "no" on the idea, opened up. "I'm hesitant to support the letter, but I think Bartt brings up some good points. So, I will reconsider writing the letter."

City Administrator Gus Burril offered to draft a letter with input from the councilors and send the letter to Gov. Brown as soon as possible.


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