Commissioners Vacate Hearing Room, Move Meeting Online after ‘Disruptive Behavior’ from Crowd

The chair of the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners abruptly ended a business meeting this week and moved the proceedings online due to several attendees’ refusal to follow state and county policies, including wearing a mask, and what staff described as “disruptive behavior.”

Chair Tootie Smith gaveled the January 13 meeting to a premature end less than 20 minutes after it started, citing the incivility and heckling by several audience members while Commissioner Martha Schrader was attempting to reinforce the importance of wearing masks and following public health protocols.

Schrader attended the meeting virtually, as did her colleague Sonya Fischer, due to recent Covid exposures. Smith, Vice Chair Paul Savas and Commissioner Mark Shull — all masked — appeared on the dais in person.

Schrader’s young grandson in New York had recently contracted a mild case of the virus, she shared, and other family members had experienced bouts with it as well.

“This is real, OK?” she said. “We’ve been really lucky that it isn’t severe, but we just never know how it’s going to hit people. We never know how sick you’re going to get with it, so it’s really important to be careful.”

She ended by encouraging community members to be respectful of and kind toward others — “Let’s just give each other some grace and space,” she urged at one point — but it become difficult to hear over the noise of the crowd.

“We’re going virtual — online. We’re canceling the meeting,” Smith announced, before scolding the crowd: “I warned you. I asked for you to observe decorum.”

“Pathetic,” one woman declared on the county’s broadcast of the brief meeting, while a man’s voice shouted: “Are you going to spew your propaganda all night?”

Smith had strictly admonished all in attendance to wear masks during the meeting, in line with statewide requirements for indoor public spaces. While making it clear that neither she nor the county had imposed the rule, she said it would be followed, promising to cancel the meeting if even one person refused to comply.

“As the video shows, attendees were provided notice by Chair Smith that she would close the meeting to the public if all attendees did not comply with the mask requirements,” county Community Relations Specialist Dylan Blaylock recounted to the Current in an email Friday.

“Minutes later, several attendees became disruptive during the proceedings and failed to follow state and county requirements. Chair Smith stopped the meeting and the board was in recess. After a break, the board reconvened and the meeting resumed via Zoom.”

Commissioners and staff completed the most pressing business before them, Blaylock said, appearing from their personal offices. However, a petition to form a new Hoodland Park District, which had been set for a public hearing that night, had to be postponed until next week, he added.

The county’s broadcast showed the crowd only briefly at one point early in the truncated meeting, and appeared to show most attendees wearing some form of face covering.

In a livestreamed Instagram video posted by Free Oregon, a nonpartisan civil liberties group that opposes mask and vaccine mandates and has held events in Canby, Chief Political Officer Sonja Feintech also maintained that the crowd had been following the rules and wearing masks — though they apparently removed them soon after Smith ended the meeting.

“Everyone in here was doing what they were told, wearing masks and whatnot,” Feintech said in the video. “And they just canceled the meeting, very reminiscent of the Portland Public School Board meeting. Yeah, they just freaked out and canceled it.”

A smaller crowd of around 50 to 60 people — mostly unmasked at that point — remained in the hearing room after Smith, Shull and several county staff members had vacated, holding their own meeting that lasted for about a half-hour, Feintech’s livestream shows.

Several residents read prepared statements that they had planned to deliver in public comment before commissioners, protesting the need for or efficacy of Covid-19 safety requirements, disputing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data and recommendations and even attempting to cast doubt on the 2020 presidential election with long-debunked claims of fraud.

Several speakers and people who appeared in the video declared their support for Shull, whose ultraconservative views and controversial statements have drawn praise from the far-right and criticism from across much of the political spectrum.

Meanwhile, they castigated Smith, a longtime conservative icon who, barely 12 months ago, was being lionized by primetime commentator Tucker Carlson and Fox News for her pugnacious approach to Governor Kate Brown’s Covid rules.

“She was cool for a while, but then, yeah, she’s really turned her back on people,” Feintech said in her video. “I don’t know if she’s up for reelection in this year’s midterm, but if she is, vote her out.”

Smith was sworn in to her current position in January 2021 and would not be eligible for reelection until 2024.

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