Councilors Hash Out Differences over Covid Shutdowns

The Canby City Council narrowly passed a resolution calling on the state to end pandemic-related business closures and other restrictions, following a discussion that seemed to go far beyond the merits of the non-binding, symbolic statement.

Instead, the matter cast into sharp relief the differences that can divide the members of the council — and by extension, residents who agree with one side or the other — differences that the 14-month coronavirus pandemic and associated restrictions have only intensified.

At City Council Wednesday night, some of those frustrations bubbled over.

The resolution was introduced by Mayor Brian Hodson, inspired by a similar — though more full-throated — statement that Baker City passed in March, but which has gained statewide and even national attention in the past week.

Hodson maintained that the resolution was about rallying around Canby’s small businesses — particularly, restaurants, bars and gyms that have been disproportionately impacted by the state’s Covid rules.

“To me, this is not a partisan issue or a partisan resolution,” Hodson said. “We are saying, ‘Enough with the yanking around of our businesses, their livelihoods and the livelihoods of their employees.'”

Other councilors, however, saw it as explicitly partisan. Councilor Sarah Spoon derided what she called the “garbage resolution,” saying it accomplishes nothing for local businesses and could be detrimental to public health and safety.

“It is wrought with unverified claims, inaccuracies, and vague, inflammatory and ideological language that is purely political theater and nothing more,” she said Wednesday, reading from a prepared statement. “Feelings aren’t facts, and this whole resolution is full of feelings and falsehoods.

“It was irresponsible of the mayor to even bring false statements and unverified claims to city staff or to us and it would be irresponsible for anyone to vote in approval. We should never even be considering actions with unverified claims.”

Earlier in the meeting, Spoon, along with Councilor Chris Bangs, had grilled the mayor to substantiate various claims the resolution makes, including that statewide coronavirus restrictions have led to bankruptcies, food and housing insecurity, and a “significant rise in domestic violence, crimes of desperation, mental health impacts, and suicide risks” in Canby.

For the most part, he was unable to provide supporting data Wednesday night — and later admitted some of the language was “extreme” and liberties may have been taken — but said he did know of two local businesses that had declared bankruptcy due to Covid-19.

Spoon argued that approving the resolution would be “us writing checks for our egos and ideology with someone else’s money.”

“Nothing happens to us if we pass this, but we could bring risk or harm to others in playing political games with their businesses,” she said. “This resolution does no actual good. It’s performative at best and it changes absolutely nothing about the restrictions it complains about.”

Hodson made clear that his intention was not to encourage business owners or citizens to defy state shutdowns or other coronavirus guidelines, such as wearing masks indoors and wherever social distancing may be difficult to maintain.

“That is not what I’m asking,” Hodson said. “I’ve never been asking our businesses to not follow those, because we can’t. We shouldn’t. The purpose of this is to say to the governor: ‘This is now the fourth or fifth shutdown on many of our mom-and-pop businesses, and they’ve been impacted.’ The strategy isn’t working … and it’s time for a different strategy.”

But some felt the resolution sends the opposite message to the community.

An impassioned Bangs went through the draft resolution virtually word by word, insisting that Hodson defend his description of state restrictions on certain businesses as “arbitrary” and explain, specifically, the constitutional rights or civil liberties that the resolution claimed had been violated.

Hodson had offered that he believed that included people’s ability to “come and go freely” and conduct business without restrictions — including the mask mandate.

“Seven times, it refers to these rights and civil liberties, [citing] the Oregon Constitution and the United States Constitution,” Bangs said. “I’ve read these documents. I don’t know if you have. People’s ability to come and go and shop are not civil liberties. Our ability to go to restaurants or to go to school — those are not civil liberties. Shopping — it’s just not there.”

At one point, Bangs referenced comments Hodson made during a council meeting in November, that there had been relatively few — if any — confirmed cases of the virus tied to restaurants, bars and fitness centers in Canby.

“Look, Mr. Mayor, if I seem a little bit fired up about this, I have to tell you, I feel like you’re kind of like the mayor in the movie Jaws, saying the water is safe,” Bangs said. “You said the restaurants were safe. My son got Covid in one of those restaurants, in Canby, a month after you said that. That was my boy. You said the water was safe.”

“I’m sorry that your son got Covid,” Hodson replied. “I’m sorry that happened. But to insinuate that it’s my fault that he got Covid? Uncalled for. That’s not mine. I won’t wear that, so please don’t put that on me.”

Bangs then accused two fellow councilors of refusing to take the Covid vaccine and complaining about mask mandates. He did not name them, but Council President Traci Hensley and Councilor Jordan Tibbals took offense, clearly seeming to believe he was targeting them.

“I would like a point of order,” Hensley said to Bangs. “You have questions and answers, and discussion regarding the resolution. That does not include attacking your colleagues.”

“I’m attacking this resolution,” he shot back, holding up the document. “I’m telling you that the solution to having all of us stop wearing masks is to take the vaccine. I don’t know where the lack of courage is.”

Things really went south when Bangs pressed councilors on their Christian faith: “Let me ask you, would Jesus turn his back on sick people?”

“Oh, come on!” Hensley interjected as he continued: “What would Jesus do in this situation? Would Jesus approve this?”

Hodson, who serves as chair of council meetings, stepped in at that point, imploring Bangs to “dial it back.”

“Dial this back, Mr. Mayor,” Bangs countered, holding up the resolution again. “People die because of this.”

Read the full proposed resolution below:

Click to access resolution-no-1347.pdf

The resolution “doesn’t mean anything,” Bangs continued, saying it was rushed to protest the latest shutdown — which the governor had already reversed — and that the community had not been given a chance to weigh in.

“It’s just the City Council saying, ‘We don’t want masks. We don’t want social distancing,'” he said. “That’s gonna kill people.”

Bangs called the resolution “unnecessary,” “hurtful,” “filled with untruths” — and “appropriate” that it was numbered 1347 — the year the Black Death arrived in Europe.

“I think this is horrible,” Bangs concluded. “I think it’s divisive. If you want to run the state, you should run for the Legislature. This doesn’t help the city of Canby.”

Tibbals began his comments by pushing back on Bangs’ decision to call out his colleagues on the basis of religion, a class of people that are legally protected from discrimination.

“I would venture to say that if you inserted any other protected class in place of ‘Christian,’ you would never dare to appeal to that,” he said. “I think it’s really inappropriate. I don’t appreciate it. And people of faith in the community probably don’t appreciate it.”

He also seemed to take issue with the idea that social distancing measures and other guidelines should remain in place until vaccinations are more widespread.

“At this point, all the people who want to have access to the vaccine do,” he said. “And so, what are we talking about? Are we going to be shut down until we force vaccinations on everyone?”

Tibbals shared the mayor’s view that the resolution signaled the city’s support for small and struggling businesses.

“It’s so easy to say, ‘Order more takeout. Do your part,” he said. “But we have an opportunity to stand, as free Americans, against the tyrannical orders that our governor is doing, which don’t make any sense.”

To underscore this, he pointed out the absurdity of restaurants being prohibited from serving food or drinks indoors, but still being allowed to offer access to video Lottery machines — which generate revenue for state government.

“Give me a break,” he said. “We are a free nation.”

Saying other councilors had taken the opportunity to “grandstand,” Tibbals read several sentences from the Declaration of Independence, including “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.”

“I would say the government picking that corporations can stay open, picking winners and losers and squashing the American dream of restaurant owners and gym owners … is overstepping their bounds,” he said. “And this is us, as a city, saying, ‘Enough is enough.’ We don’t agree with this.”

Tibbals claimed the state’s shutdowns have unfairly targeted small businesses over well-heeled corporations like Walmart and Costco because they lacked the financial wherewithal to fight the regulations.

He also argued the mask mandate has been “psychologically damaging,” describing an incident in a park where an older girl reacted to his daughter with apparent fear because she wasn’t wearing a mask.

“We were always going to disagree on this, but we live in a free country,” he concluded. “If people want to get vaccinated … they have the freedom to do that. But people also have the freedom to make a living, put food on their table and not have to worry about the government shutting them down.”

Hensley pointed out that the resolution doesn’t say anything about masks.

“You can choose to wear your mask if you think they’re effective,” she said. “This is about standing up and having a voice for our business community. It’s about saying, ‘We believe that our business owners deserve the right to make a living and not have to keep laying people off.’

“They’re putting up tents. They’re spending all this money, just trying to survive, and they’re not surviving. And it’s not OK. And it’s just time for us to stand up and let our business community know that we have their back.”

She said the resolution sends the message to businesses that the city is “doing what we can.”

“We understand that we have no control over state agencies,” she said. “We are not pretending we do. But Main Street is dying. Livelihoods are going away. Mental health issues are on the rise. I’ve seen things firsthand; I’ve had people reach out to me multiple times.”

Councilor Shawn Varwig, who was quiet during much of the discussion, admitted that the proceedings had saddened him.

“I’m really sad at the behavior tonight,” he said. “This has been a hard year for a lot of people, I get it. It seems to me that this was an opportunity for people to lob some personal attacks. That’s just what we have right now, and I don’t see it ending anytime soon.”

Varwig said he agreed with the “spirit” of the resolution, which was to support small businesses.

“I’m in favor of it, because I’m in favor of our businesses,” he said. “The wording may not be perfect, but … I think it’s time to end the yo-yo ride for our restaurants, our bars, our gyms — the businesses that have struggled so much.”

Councilor Greg Parker, like Spoon, was critical of the process, in which it appeared the mayor had acted unilaterally — directing city staff to draft the resolution without the council’s knowledge or blessing.

“That is out of order,” Parker said. “I mean, it is problematic. Do you really want me to have the ability to walk into our city attorney’s office any day of the week and say, ‘Here, write a resolution on this’? No.”

Parker agreed that the resolution, as presented, served “only to divide us.”

“I think you recognized that this was going to be a 4-3 vote and was only going to separate the council,” he said. “If you wanted to pass a resolution that said we support our businesses, OK. Yes. Can I also amend it to say we support section 3 of the city charter and recognize the roles and differences between the mayor and the City Council?

“Brian, you and I have had this conversation for 12 years. We have a weak mayor system. It is not one where you get to walk into the city attorney’s office and say, ‘Here. Rewrite this.’ It violates the spirit of citizen involvement and having a public hearing.”

However, Hensley later said that she, Tibbals and Varwig had actually brought the resolution to Hodson, including deliberating over the language to be presented. Spoon questioned whether this was a violation of state laws — which prohibit a majority of elected officials from meeting outside of official, public channels.

But, since the mayor is not normally a voting member of the council, City Attorney Joe Lindsay said the four of them do not constitute a majority.

“The mayor only votes in the event of a tie,” he said. “So, it’s close.”

Legal or not, Spoon objected to “being excluded from the process on partisan lines.”

“This is what you promised us wouldn’t happen,” she said. “If you want a council that works together, you have to work with us. You can’t exclude us from everything and expect us to go along. It’s frustrating. And I feel disrespected, to be honest.”

But Hensley pushed back.

“We didn’t decide anything, other than some language to present to you all,” she said. “I wanted harsher language. I got shot down, for the record.”

Hodson, again, admitted that the process had been rushed, but said he had not believed the matter would be as “cantankerous” as it turned out to be.

“You only worked with half the council on this,” Parker told him. “I think we can do better than that. And maybe we wouldn’t be here if you had picked up the phone to Chris, to Sarah, to me and said, ‘What do you think about this?'”

Councilors split on the resolution 3-3, with the mayor casting the tie-breaking vote. The resolution took effect immediately.

Watch the full May 5 Canby City Council meeting below:

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