The invitation arrived addressed to “friends, colleagues and Brothers and Sisters in-arms!”
“I'm asking you to join with me for a face to face meeting … to talk about how we will draw up our battle plans,” Lake County Commissioner Mark Albertson wrote in a June 5 email.
By noon the following Thursday, a dozen rural county commissioners were in Prairie City, an eastern Oregon town with about a thousand residents.
Clad in a black suit jacket and cowboy hat, Prairie City Mayor Jim Hamsher welcomed them to a visitor center reminiscent of an Old West saloon. Deschutes County Commissioner Tony DeBone brought snacks. In all, representatives from seven Oregon counties, including a majority of commissioners from four counties, showed up to an event that wasn’t publicly announced and appears to have been held in violation of Oregon’s open meetings law.
Some of the officials drove more than three hours to get there.
The rendezvous came after months of conference calls with state health officials, amid mounting frustration with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s authority over reopening and state control of federal aid.
The resentments boiled over at a time when mass demonstrations for racial equality have taken place all over the state, though the commissioners focused primarily on large turnout in Portland.
“Us on this side of the mountain are not treated the same. And so, how is that any different than racism? We are culturally oppressed by our state government,” Albertson said.
“Either we’re not all the same, or we are all the same. There are two sets of rules. And that played out very well in the last week and half,” agreed Wallowa County Commissioner Susan Roberts.
The meeting between the rural commissioners happened just hours before Brown announced she would be pausing reopening plans statewide for at least a week due to a notable rise in coronavirus cases.
Cancelled graduations, closed schools and statewide rules about how to conduct business were top of mind.
“I’m more concerned with our loss of rights to have a county fair.” Albertson said.
The elected officials he convened serve counties that make up a third of Oregon by land, but just 4% of its coronavirus cases, and no deaths identified by the Oregon Health Authority as of Thursday.
“You can have 5,000 people on the streets rioting. Five hundred in a Wal-Mart. But, you can’t have more than 10 in a daycare? These are the things that just irritate me,” Roberts said.
The meeting played out in three acts: an airing of grievances, a brainstorming session of demands, and a discussion of possible repercussions for rebelling against state authorities.
The commissioners asked questions like, will the governor withhold federal CARES Act funding passed through the state?
Albertson posed: “Are we going to be sued as a county for not upholding the emergency orders? ... Are we stepping outside the bounds of our elected capacity and could we be sued personally?”
Over the course of the two-hour meeting, commissioners time and again took issue with how the plan for lifting all restrictions hinges on having a treatment or cure for COVID-19.
Under Oregon’s phased reopening plans, many activities can resume with limited social gatherings under Phase 2. The third and final phase of reopening would allow much of life to return to normal, but it’s not on the immediate horizon for any county, and requires treatments available.
“[Brown] is putting in a condition that is unattainable, and wonders why we’re upset,” said Harney County Commissioner Kristen Shelman. “We could all be rounded up and given a vaccine without our permission.”
“A vaccine is not a cure,” said Grant County Commissioner Sam Palmer, a registered nurse. “I’m one of the only nurses in my institution that never got the flu vaccine, and I’m one of the only nurses in my institution who’s never called in sick with influenza.”
Some commissioners questioned whether reopening criteria was really based on science.
Roberts of Wallowa County criticized Brown and state health authorities for not consulting people who live in rural communities when drafting rules that devastated their small businesses.
She said she wrote a letter asking Brown’s office to lift all restrictions in Wallowa County by June 30. Other county leaders hedged on a date, and said that it should be different from place to place.
Albertson, the Lake County commissioner who organized the meeting, asked the others to think about next steps.
“Are we going to be doing this again come Christmas? Or are we going to rise up?” he asked.
Hamsher, the Prairie City mayor who is also a Grant County commissioner, suggested they wait a couple of weeks to see if the wave of mass demonstrations would lead to a surge in cases, “and hopefully they don’t see a spike.”
Other attendees included Wallowa County Commissioner John Hillock; Jefferson County commissioners Mae Huston and Kelly Simmelink; and Union County commissioners Donna Beverage and Paul Anderes.
At one point, Huston held a file folder over her face, apparently in response to OPB and the Blue Mountain Eagle recording the meeting. She walked out early.
The day after the gathering, the Oregon Supreme Court upheld Brown's authority. It said that a Baker County Circuit Court erred in its ruling that the governor's executive orders relating to the coronavirus pandemic violated a 28-day statutory time limit, and had therefore expired.
The decision directs the circuit court to vacate the preliminary injunction it had entered. While the Baker County case is still open, the governor’s orders remain in effect.
Correction: This story has been updated to accurately reflect county commissioners were first informed about the planned meeting June 5. OPB regrets the error.