Clackamas County commissioners have moved their meetings to online-only for the foreseeable future after some attendees at last week’s session refused to follow county and state public health rules and became so disruptive that board Chair Tootie Smith worried they could turn violent.
Smith said in a statement to media outlets that she has made a point to hold in-person commission meetings since taking office in January of 2021 but felt the aggressive energy at last week’s hearing was palpable — and disturbing.
As the meeting began, Smith pounded her gavel from behind the dais and strictly admonished the audience of about 60 people to put on masks. About a third of them were not wearing masks initially, she later estimated, though a later shot of the crowd from the county’s broadcast showed that most complied with her request.
“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 the crowd. “I will not argue, I will cancel the meeting or you will be removed.”
Things went off the rails less than 20 minutes in, as Commissioner Martha Schrader was attempting to reinforce the importance of wearing masks and following public health protocols.
“Thanks for telling folks they need to wear masks. That’s a good thing,” Schrader said, to jeers from several in the audience. “No, everyone: Let’s not get hostile tonight,” she continued.
“There’s too much energy. Let’s just be kind to one another. Everybody’s upset. It’s a hard week; it’s a hard two years. Just, let’s give each other some grace and space, OK?”
“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?”
Both the county’s broadcast, as well as a livestream from Free Oregon in which the group continues to hold their own impromptu meeting after commissioners and staff vacated the room, appear to show a relatively restrained and compliant crowd, albeit ones with different ideas about Covid than the CDC and public health officials.
But on Tuesday, Smith shared alarming context that she claimed suggested some members of the crowd may have had violent intentions.
Smith told The Oregonian that a staffer later informed her people in the back of the room had been overheard saying, “Get ready. Let’s take the dais. We’re going to storm it.” She described the incident as an “attempted insurrection” and told other media outlets she feared the crowd would become violent.
“They removed masks, called names and wielded accusations at me and my fellow commissioners,” she said. “While I have always supported choice for people to manage their own health care and have said so many times publicly, this group of individuals blamed our local commission for all the state mandates Governor Brown has issued. They knew better.”
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, protect public safety — and avoid what could be sizable fines if the county refused to enforce the state’s mask guidelines.
“As a leader of Clackamas County, I do not want my government to be levied a $500 per person fine,” she said. “In attendance at this meeting were 60 people and the resulting fine would have been $30,000 of taxpayer money for the first offense.”
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, which has been an option for participants since the pandemic began nearly two years ago.
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