Clackamas County commissioners have temporarily moved their meetings to online only after some people in the crowd at last week’s session refused to wear masks and became so disruptive that board Chair Tootie Smith worried they could turn violent.
Smith has held in-person commission meetings since she took office in January 2021 but said the energy at the Jan. 13 meeting was palpable – and disturbing.
As the meeting began, Smith pounded her gavel from behind the dais and ordered the audience of about 60 people to put on masks. About a third of the people weren’t wearing masks, she told the Oregonian Wednesday.
“If you don’t like it, you will be escorted out and/or I will cancel this meeting and we will not have it in person,” Smith told those gathered, according to a video recording of the meeting.
“I will not argue, I will cancel the meeting or you will be removed,” she said.
After that, the group listened for about 20 minutes to a COVID-19 update from the county’s public health director, Philip Mason-Joyner. Twelve people in the county died from the coronavirus in the week before, Mason-Joyner said, as more than 5,000 were infected.
As Commissioner Sonya Fischer asked the public health director for guidance about the omicron variant, some people in the crowd interrupted with claps and yelling.
Commissioner Martha Schrader, who along with Fischer was attending the meeting via Zoom, then said: “Let’s not get hostile tonight. There’s too much energy. Let’s just be kind to one another. Everybody is upset. It’s a hard week, it’s a hard two years.”
Smith pounded her gavel while Schrader was speaking and said, “We’re going online. We’re canceling the meeting.”
Someone in the crowd yelled: “Are you going to spew your propaganda all night?”
Another said: “Listen to the people.”
The recording of the meeting then cut out before the commissioners all came back via Zoom to discuss grant funding and other business items.
Smith told the Oregonian a staffer informed her after she had recessed the meeting that people in the back of the room had been overheard saying, “Get ready, let’s take the dais, we’re going to storm it.”
Smith didn’t hear the threat directly, but said she “could feel it. I could see it” when the commotion broke out.
“They were waving their fists, they were taking their masks off, standing up to protest,” she said. “I believe it was an attempted insurrection on these two other commissioners sitting at the dais.”
Commissioners Mark Shull and Paul Savas had attended the meeting in person with Smith. Schrader and Fischer attended remotely due to recent COVID exposures.
Smith said she wasn’t aware of any plans to protest the meeting beforehand.
Smith has publicly disagreed with Gov. Kate Brown’s management of the pandemic and has challenged accepted science about COVID-19. For instance, she publicly defied the governor’s order limiting social gatherings over Thanksgiving 2020. And in January 2021 at a Salem protest against coronavirus restrictions just before she took office, Smith made a speech encouraging a crowd to “go out and try to catch the virus” for herd immunity.
She said she understands some people’s frustration about Brown’s indoor mask mandate amid what feels like a never-ending pandemic. But as chair of the Board of Commissioners, it’s her responsibility to keep the meetings professional, she said.
“As I explained to them, I don’t set the rules, I have no authority over that,” Smith said. “I believe in personal choice. Those people knew that. But they were disruptors. They didn’t care.”
Smith said county commissioners are going to “play it by ear” and “measure the temperature” as the meetings go virtual this week and next. People can sign into the meetings via Zoom as has been an option for participants for nearly two years since the pandemic began.
“Unfortunately I think there’s a lot of civil unrest right now out there in general and I just can’t let citizens or my staff or any fellow commissioners be subjected to violence as we’re trying to conduct county business,” Smith said.
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