LA GRANDE — A dozen county commissioners — including all three from Union County and two from Wallowa County — met Thursday in Prairie City to air grievances about what they believe is the state’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic.
“To be more than blunt it was basically an opportunity for folks to get together and talk about frustrations we are having with the process and communication from the executive branch of Oregon’s government,” Union County Commissioner Paul Anderes told The Observer Friday.
Commissioners from seven counties — Union, Wallowa, Lake, Grant, Deschutes, Harney and Jefferson — met to discuss a range of topics that, according to Anderes, included “concerns folks had, whether it be school opening, athletics, group gatherings, business openings, what are the rules, how do they apply, things like that.”
The commissioners held the meeting without giving a public notice.
“We didn’t publicly notice it specifically,” Anderes said, “but I talked about (attending) it in a public meeting.”
He and Wallowa County Commissioner Susan Roberts contended the meeting was not held in secret, noting news reporters covered the meeting.
Roberts said state’s guidelines have been “all over the board” and pointed to what she said were inconsistencies in what the state allows. An example she cited was the state’s OK with protests in the 1,000s over the killing of George Floyd — in groups clearly violating social distancing measures put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus — but graduations, for example, can’t be held.
“Why is it we can’t have a local high school grad with 13 graduates (but) 10,000 people can form on the street of Oregon? No one can trace that down (if the virus spreads),” she said. “We were looking at a way to present something to the governor and staff. These areas can’t all be treated the same. Guidance for one area doesn’t work for another.
“Our call a week ago with (the Oregon Health Authority), we were told those things. It set people’s teeth on edge.”
She also said the state was going against its own claim that all decisions would be science-based, and pointed to the effectiveness of face coverings — which is still in dispute — as an example.
“We were told the state made only decisions based on science. But on this particular issue it was based on theory,” she said.
Lake County Commissioner Mark Albertson coordinated the meeting via email, in which he referenced a conference from last week that seemed to indicate a double standard.
“Today in a conference call with the AOC the OHA director stated that he wanted to protect the protesters and they didn’t have to follow the guidelines that we do!” he said in an email timestamped just before 3 p.m. June 5 that was sent to more than 45 Eastern and Central Oregon commissioners. “You can request the transcript from the AOC if you don’t believe me. In other words you can protest but we can’t go to church, you can protest but can’t go to a ball game, you can protest but you can’t have a fair or rodeo. This is absolute insanity and now the OHA tells you if you can go to work or dinner with your friends.”
Anderes also referenced the conference call, noting “they talked about not tracing demonstrators but were going to hold everyone else to a (different) standard.”
The Union County commissioner said there was discussion about the state continuing to hold what he said was about $1.62 billion in CARES Act funding.
“As of today, there has not been any money distributed to counties, cities and special districts, which is really a concern,” he said. “We are racking up some bills that are COVID-related.”
Roberts noted the commissioners discussed their concerns about their constituents, how there “didn’t seem to be any consistency whatsoever” in what came from the state.
“There were just lots of things that did not equate to rural Oregon,” she said, pointing to the lower percentage of cases in the rural parts of the state compared to others. “We’re not naive enough to think the virus won’t find us but we’re prepared to meet the challenge. Our local hospitals and authorities are ready.”
She added the state should be ready to help if called upon, but “until then we feel we need to be able to make the decisions.”
Roberts said a “compilation of those things we as commissioners out here feel need to be addressed or let our public know we are working on” will be sent out next week.
Roberts also countered reporting about the meeting being secretive.
“We weren’t private,” he said. “We went into a restaurant and had lunch. I think the concept was we could have had a phone call among us. We chose to meet in public and in person, and the press was there.”