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Clackamas County Commission meetings go virtual due to anti-mask protests

Chair Tootie Smith halted a meeting on Thursday and moved to a virtual format after warning audience members multiple times to not interrupt.

CLACKAMAS COUNTY, Ore. — The Clackamas County Commission will revert to a virtual-only format for its meetings this week after disruptive audience members prompted Chair Tootie Smith to end the Jan. 13 in-person meeting and reconvene remotely.

Smith said she's made it a point to allow in-person public attendance until now, but there was "a targeted attempt at Thursday's business meeting to disrupt and shout down and not let business proceedings take place," and she subsequently learned that the disruptive group intended to return at the next meeting.

"I am not willing to put state funding services in jeopardy from a group of dissenters whose intent was, as I heard later from my staff in the room, was to charge the dais and kick out the commissioners," she said. "I stood up to them. They crossed the line and I will not tolerate that type of insurrection at county government."

Smith said she and the other commissioners were not aware of any planned protest until they arrived for the meeting, but it became clear that the disruption had been planned in advance and there was "a credible threat." She said she has asked the Oregon City police to investigate the incident.

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Smith said she will monitor the situation to decide when to reintroduce in-person meetings, and that all of the commissioners would have input on the decision.

This isn't the first time anti-mask protesters have showed up at Clackamas County Commission meetings. Commissioner Sonya Fischer recalled a previous meeting in August in which hundreds of people attended to protest the reinstatement of Oregon's mask mandate as the delta wave set in, although Smith said that group was "much better behaved," and said the level disruption at Thursday's meeting was unprecedented.

Anti-mask disruption

County video of the meeting shows many audience members were initially unmasked, but masked up after Smith opened the meeting by declaring that the proceedings would be canceled unless everyone in the room wore one.

Smith has been a vocal opponent of mask mandates, but she stressed both in the meeting and in a later interview that it's Gov. Kate Brown who has the authority to set mask rules in public buildings.

Credit: Clackamas County
An image taken from the live stream of the Clackamas County Commissioners meeting on Jan. 13

"The fine at that meeting for the 60 people in the room, at $500 a person, would've been $30,000 out of taxpayer money. I am not willing to put my county in jeopardy of that kind of money," she told KGW, noting that the penalties would be steeper for repeat offenses.

About 15 minutes into the meeting, following an update from county health officials about the omicron surge, Commissioner Martha Schrader thanked Smith for asking people to wear masks, at which point there was an audible reaction from audience members, and Smith interjected to tell the crowd to stop.

Schrader kept speaking, and at least two audience members can be heard on the video shouting "propaganda." Smith interjected again and stated that the meeting would go virtual. Several audience members can be heard shouting before the video cuts off, then resumes as a video call.

RELATED: Clackamas Co. commissioner doubles down on Jim Crow language in proposed vaccine passport ban

The county video does not show what happened next in the commission meeting room, but a video posted to Instagram by the group FreeOregon, which describes itself on Facebook as "the ultimate solution to government overreach in Oregon," shows that members of the audience remained in the chamber, mostly unmasked, for at least half an hour.

The video shows several audience members giving prepared speeches, most of which included widely debunked conspiracy theories and falsehoods about vaccines, COVID infection rates, the 2020 U.S. election and the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The video does not show how much longer the protesters were there, but Smith said Commissioner Mark Shull returned to the meeting room at about 8:15 p.m. at the request of county administrator Gary Schmidt and asked the crowd to leave, and they did so.