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Mayor Pulliam, police chief differ on power of city, local law enforcement to defy governor's orders

PMG FILE PHOTO: BRITTANY ALLEN - The Sandy City Council currently appears to be split in half between members whod prefer a speedier reopening of the economy and those who are concerned reopening too soon would lead to more casualties. Sandy Mayor Stan Pulliam is unhappy with the speed of Gov. Kate Brown's plan to lift a quarantine and reopen businesses, saying he and Sandy Police officers would be willing to defy the governor's orders if directed by the Sandy City Council to do so.

Sandy Police Chief Ernie Roberts said he disagrees with that assessment.

Pulliam and City Council members are at odds over how soon to reopen the city in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pulliam raised eyebrows Wednesday, May 6, when he appeared on the conservative radio talk show of commentator Lars Larson, saying that Sandy Police are under the direction of the City Council and that he knows of multiple officers who'd be willing to defy the governor's orders if directed by council to do so.

Sandy Police Chief Ernie Roberts has since clarified to the Pamplin Media Group that Pulliam's statement — regarding the powers of the council over police — is inaccurate.

"We're sworn to enforce state and federal laws and our municipal codes," Roberts said. "It's not like we as a police department have a choice to enforce some laws and ignore others. The police department is going to act in accordance with the governor's directive as long as it's in place. If the City Council were to enact some municipal order that went against the governor's directive, we'd still have to follow state and federal laws. We can't pick and choose. Everybody here is human, too. We may not agree with every single law and municipal ordinance, but that doesn't mean we can choose to not enforce them. We're still bound to enforce those laws."

Pulliam also subsequently clarified that he has no plan to request action against the governor's order by council in the near future.

"Over the next several days I'm going to watch as the governor rolls out her plan," Pulliam said on Friday, May 8. "Based on what we see there as far as a plan, timeline, dates — if I'm disappointed or dissatisfied with that plan, I may consider bringing something before council."

Governor's plan

Gov. Brown's guidelines for reopening are outlined in three phases, allowing businesses, personal service providers and retailers to reopen starting Friday, May 15, on the condition they follow specific physical distancing and hygiene guidelines for each business sector. Returning to in-person activities will be dependent largely on the risk factor of each activity, as well as health conditions and the number of COVID-19 cases in each county and region across the state.

Before entering Phase 1, a county would need to demonstrate a declining prevalence of COVID-19: that is, a steady drop in hospitalizations for 14 days, with emergency room visits for COVID-like illnesses being below what they typically are for influenza.

Specific guidelines for testing regimens and contract tracing systems, along with supplies of personal protective equipment and other health care capacity also are identified as prerequisites in the state plan.

Varying support

In response to Brown's plan (see section Governor's Plan), Pulliam said "I'm happy we're at least beginning to talk about reopening."

However, he added: "I wish the guidance was more clear and our county leaders were more confident in how they'd meet those guidelines."

At the county level, Pulliam says, leaders are concerned about how they will be able to implement hospitalization tracking and also how they will fund the required steps to reopen.

Pulliam and city staff will continue to work with county leaders throughout that process.

Recently, Pulliam has been working in concert with members of the Rural Clackamas County Alliance — Oregon City Mayor Dan Holladay, Canby Mayor Brian Hodson, Gladstone Mayor Tammy Stempel and Molalla Mayor Keith Swigart — who joined Pulliam in calling for a swifter reopening for rural communities.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Mayor Stan Pulliam has been very vocal in the past few weeks about his feeling that the local economy needs to be reopened sooner than the state is calling for. "I remain incredibly nervous that these businesses are not going to be able to return once the stay-home order is pulled back," Pulliam has said on numerous occasions in the past few weeks. "This was not going to cure the pandemic. This was always going to slow the growth of it and allow our hospitals time to adjust and let our manufacturing industry get the equipment out. Now, we've done that. We've been successful. It's time now to restart this economy."

Despite Pulliam's support from neighboring mayors, other members of the Sandy City Council have expressed concern over not only reopening, but Pulliam's very public advocacy for pushing back against the governor's timeline.

Balancing support with safety

Councilor Jan Lee says she is concerned for local businesses, but also for the needs of public health.

"The last thing we want to do is go through this process again," Lee added." I think the mayor's pushing us a little faster than we should be. We have more cases per capita than some more densely populated areas."

The numbers Lee is referring to come from the Oregon Health Authority's May 5 report detailing the number of cases reported from each ZIP code in the state.

Within Sandy's ZIP code of 97055 there have been 13 cases — 7.49 cases per 10,000 people — reported. The ZIP code population is 17,350 people.

The area of Newport, which is similar in size to Sandy, has reported fewer than 10 cases, which is noted as "1-9 cases" in the Health Authority report. Neighboring communities of Estacada, Welches and Rhododendron have reported zero cases thus far and the unincorporated Boring area has reported fewer than 10 cases.

Lee pointed out that, within Southeast Portland ZIP codes that fall inside Clackamas County's boundaries — 97222 and 97267 — the cases per capita are still lower than those reported in Sandy with 5.43 cases per 10,000 people in 97222, which has a population of 34,979 people; and 7.13 cases per 10,000 people in 97267, which has a population of 30,839 people.

"There is no reason we should be separated out from other cities," Lee said. "Some fairly populous areas have (fewer) cases per capita than Sandy. Being in a rural area proves to be no safer.

"I am also a small business owner as a consultant and have cutbacks, but I would not want to put anyone at risk by pushing the safety envelope," she added.

Lee added that she doesn't feel alone in her hesitation at reopening Sandy. She said she's received multiple emails from people with similar concerns who also are concerned by Pulliam's recent comments.

"I know the mayor says he represents his constituents, but obviously not all of them," Lee said. "We need to come to some balance where we can support our businesses but still stay safe. I think we need to follow the county's reopening plan."

Councilor John Hamblin shared similar sentiment to Lee's.

"I definitely understand the needs and desires of the business community," Hamblin explained. "I work for an organization that's going to lose $2 million in spring term. We had to lay off 200 people. I also want to honor and recognize the science behind this (government action). This is a once-in-a-generation (event). I know people want answers and a path forward. I think there's some waiting that needs to be done."

Hamblin added that some people may be using the conflict over reopening as a way to further a political agenda.

"This is not a political issue for me," he said. "This is a nonpartisan seat, so is the mayor's. I think the critique of the governor's actions is very political and not scientific."

Though Hamblin is eager to see progress toward reopening, he remains committed to a process that embraces public health and safety.

"If staying closed for two more weeks keeps 20 people from dying, I'm for it," he said. "I think what we do right now will dictate what normal looks like and how soon we get there."

Councilor Bethany Schultz also expressed concern about reopening too quickly, but declined further comment.

Reopening 'reasonably and effectively'

In contrast to what Hamblin stated, Councilor Laurie Smallwood has said she's in support of Pulliam's response.

"The whole point of this was to enable the hospital system to not be overwhelmed," Smallwood said. "We're on week seven or eight and at the county and state level, it's my understanding, we've never gone over 40% capacity. I think we've managed to get where the governor's asked. I feel like there's a way to reasonably and effectively start to reopen our economy."

Smallwood referred to the 13 cases reported from Sandy in the Health Authority's statement, saying "that's not even 1%."

"Obviously none of us want anyone to get sick," she added. "We have to find a way to deal with this virus. It's not going anywhere."

As far as the mayor's recent public comments are concerned, Smallwood said: "I suppose in some ways I may not be as bothered by it because I happen to agree with him. Just because you're an elected official, you don't give up your First Amendment rights."

When asked about her opinion on the reopening guidelines released on May 7 by Gov. Brown, Smallwood admitted all of what she'd heard "seems very reasonable," with counties applying to reopen and having to meet certain mileposts before they can resume.

"My only concern is that Clackamas County is such a diverse county," she said. "Our population is different than Oregon City's or West Linn's. Hopefully, the governor is willing to look at bisections of the regions."

On a larger scale, Councilor Carl Exner said, "it's unclear why Oregon, and Sandy in particular, should stay closed," calling the continuation of the stay-at-home order "inappropriate."

"I am a law-and-order person," Exner added, clarifying that he wouldn't typically condone going against a law that's been set in place, but adding that he's concerned by the mental health and economic byproducts of this time in isolation.

"I'm willing to accept that we've done well by closing up when we did," he said. "But I'm not a fearful person in this situation. I exemplify the at-risk population: I'm 69, I've had cancer, I've had respiratory issues, I have had a heart attack fairly recently. I think I can keep myself safe. I think it's important we find a way to be safe but let people get out of their homes. I'd vote for opening up safely soon. I'd also be willing to send a message to the governor saying we need to let cities like Sandy reopen."

Something that Pulliam and Exner both said they do feel fairly positive about is how the members of Sandy City Council have conducted themselves, though with varying opinions on the topic of reopening.

"We have a really high-functioning city council," Pulliam said. "It makes sense that we'd have a variation of opinion on one of the biggest issues any of us have faced. I was proud at the (May 4) meeting how we civilly discussed the issue."

"I love the way council is able to disagree," Exner added. "I think it's important we respect each other. Our disagreements probably reflect the disagreement occurring in community."


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