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Elected commissioners express their 'consternation' over messaging from governor's office

Clackamas County commissioners are calling for more consistency in direction from the state government and Gov. Kate Brown's office in handling reopening following the COVID-19 pandemic. They're also calling for funds to help local businesses provided by the federal coronavirus aid package.

In a 3-2 vote, the board voted Thursday, June 18, to approve edits and send the county's Phase 2 reopening application to Brown along with a letter expressing the board's "consternation" over the guidelines and criteria set by the state. Board Chair Jim Bernard and Commissioner Sonya Fischer voted no.

The vote follows the announcement on Wednesday, June 17, that Clackamas — along with a handful of other Oregon counties including its metro neighbors — would have to wait 21 days before moving into their next phases of reopening. The move comes as COVID-19 infection numbers continue to spike across the state.

"I'm stunned that the goalpost would be moved," said Commissioner Paul Savas. "(We) have been working in good faith with the rules put in place, but to have the rules change is completely unfair."

Savas and his fellow commissioners expressed confusion over how some counties, such as Marion, have been approved to move forward with new reopening phases despite seeing similar numbers of infection and not meeting statewide criteria. They are particularly concerned about inconsistency due to recent modeling from the state that shows Oregon could see 1,000 new cases per day by the end of the month if the current infection numbers continue to rise.

Commissioners were equally confused over whether Clackamas County is officially being tied to its metro neighbors in Multnomah and Washington counties on certain parameters set by the state for reopening.

They also discussed at length how they've felt guidance from the state hasn't been consistent in terms of explaining the decisions being made at the top. The board directed county staff to draft a letter expressing those sentiments at the beginning of their business meeting Thursday and returned to it at the end after approving county budgets.

Before voting on the letter, as well as sending the county's Phase 2 application despite the 21-day moratorium on reopening, commissioners once again sought the opinion of county Public Health Officer Dr. Sarah Present.

Fischer asked her whether it's smart to continue tethering Clackamas County's reopening to criteria set for the entire metro area, and whether it would be better to be making these decisions with a regional lens.

"I wasn't sure you were gonna ask me that because I didn't think that you would like my answer, but I am in support of a regional approach from a public health standpoint," Present said.

Fischer said she is basing her decisions on the judgement of their county public health officer. She said she would only be comfortable with the letter making a request to fasttrack CARES Act funding to help small businesses in Clackamas County, but it would not be appropriate to ask the state to separate the county from its metro neighbors.

Commissioner Martha Schrader pointed out that in her personal opinion, she doesn't believe Clackamas County is ready to enter Phase 2 reopening, but pressures from the local business community and from residents who are struggling to make ends meet due to the economic downturn caused by the stay-at-home order in response to the pandemic have put elected leaders in a tough situation.

Commissioners Humberston agreed, saying that the county has an obligation to both keeping people safe and protecting its citizens and businesses community financially.

""We have a whole heck of a lot of folks that don't have the luxury (of being able to weather this storm at home). They need to work in order to pay their bills, and they're not getting enough money from any kind of stimulus package to be able to pay their bills," Humberston said. "There has to be a balance between how we protect the public health, and how we don't completely destroy the economy, which isn't going to make things better in the long run."

County Chair Jim Bernard said in a phone call following the meeting that the virus' modeling of potentially seeing 1,000 cases per day "scared him to death."

His biggest issue is securing the CARES Act funding to help local businesses, but that's a sentiment he's already raised with Gov. Brown personally along with many of the other issues raised by the board. He'd like to see the funds — which both Multnomah and Washington counties already received — issued quickly so the county can adequately hire staff to administer and track those funds.

"Still we've got nothing to offer our business community, so, the letter, I think, is a waste of time," he said. "It's apparent to me when I was on the phone with Washington County. They voted 3-2 to oppose uniting the metro counties. (Gov. Brown) heard it, and she did what she thought needed to be done."

Bernard reiterated the need for local residents to adhere strictly to guidelines such as wearing facemasks when out in public, consistent hand washing and social distancing to help stem the spread of this virus.

"Look at Union County," he said. "This virus has no boundaries. The absolute worst thing we could do is check this up so high that we have to shut down again."

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