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The other county commissioners said the proposed order was the wrong approach after Casey Garrett brought it forward.

PMG PHOTO - A screenshot shows a handful of the attendees of the Columbia County board of commissioners' Aug. 25 meeting, where dozens of residents commented on COVID-19 restrictions.Columbia County commissioners rejected a draft order that would have prevented county employees from enforcing business or school closures or stay-at-home mandates made under the governor's executive orders.

Commissioners Margaret Magruder and Henry Heimuller voiced opposition to the proposed order during a five-hour county board meeting earlier today.

Commissioner Casey Garrett, who drafted the order, said he had no intention of voting on the matter today but wanted to start a discussion with the other two commissioners.

"I, personally, would like to pursue all legal means to oppose some of the mandates that the state's putting on us and the ones that potentially come," said Garrett, who was first elected to the county commission last November. "Being that this is unprecedented, I would like to look at unprecedented measures that we can take to try to represent a large portion of our public that has these concerns."

Garrett said unvaccinated residents are worried about losing their jobs if they don't get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Both the governor and several private businesses have said they will require employees — such as healthcare workers, school staff and many state employees — to present proof they have been vaccinated against COVID-19. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has also ordered members of the military and other U.S. Department of Defense employees to get vaccinated.

Heimuller said he took issue with Garrett's proposed order and a similar letter Sheriff Brian Pixley sent to Gov. Kate Brown last week.

Through the two documents, "we truly have thrown gasoline on the fire," Heimuller said, noting the dozens of residents who spoke at Wednesday's virtual meeting, both in favor of and opposition to public health mandates.

"We've got public health employees that are feeling threatened, we have employees of the county who are concerned and threatened, we have … callers today that are very concerned for one side of this issue, and the other half that are concerned on the other side of this issue," Heimuller said.

Though the commissioners didn't take an official vote on the proposed order, Heimuller and Magruder plainly stated they would not support the order as presented.

Both cited the county's reliance on state and federal funds, which could be jeopardized if the county refuses to comply with state and federal restrictions.

"If Columbia County is financially able to be self-sufficient, then we could probably do whatever we wanted — but we are not financially self-sufficient," Magruder said.

Counties across the country are grappling with how to respond to state and federal mandates.

"I just don't think that there's too many of them that would want to jeopardize the ability to provide services, especially post-pandemic or current pandemic services, that are going to be funded out of these dollars that are coming to us, these bucketloads of dollars that are here to provide services," Heimuller said. "I don't think that we want to jeopardize those just so that we can fall on our sword."

Heimuller suggested the county government should make its concerns known, but not by vocally defying the Brown administration.

"Though I believe that some of this communication definitely needs to go to the governor's office, I think this is the wrong form in which to do it," Heimuller said.

The proposed order pushed back on state mandates but didn't show a genuine attempt to work with the state to negotiate, Magruder opined.

"I can't accept this, but I'm willing to sit down at the table and craft language" to communicate with state officials, Magruder said.

Garrett said he was willing to continue the conversation, but said he has "very little confidence in collaboration with the state at the moment."

The commissioners have signed multiple letters to the governor since the pandemic began, opposing various mandates and demands placed on the county and residents. In a letter, Magruder objected to Brown's claims earlier this month that county officials across the state "were not willing to make the tough decisions" when mask mandates were left up to counties.

After lifting the statewide mask mandate at the end of June, Brown had said she expected local officials in the state's 36 counties would create any necessary local mandates. But she reversed course after only one county — Columbia County's neighbor to the southeast, Multnomah County — announced a mask mandate as case counts rose.

Garrett panned the county's approach so far.

"I would like to see something more than just a letter asking the governor to reconsider," Garrett said. "I feel like we've done that, and lots of folks have done that, over this past year. And it doesn't seem like much of a back-and-forth conversation. It feels a little bit more like 'comply, or else' is where this is going."

The proposed order had a limited scope, only prohibiting the use of county resources for "the enforcement of business closure, school closure, or stay-at-home directives under the Executive Orders of the Governor relating to the coronavirus pandemic, including state agency directives or guidance." Brown has yet to order businesses or schools to close or Oregonians to remain home during the latest surge in cases and hospitalizations, which experts say is propelled by the much more contagious delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

The order also said the Board of Commissioners "shall make it a priority to restore, preserve and protect our local authority with matters of county concern during emergency declarations."

The order did not address vaccination requirements or mask mandates.


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