A Klickitat County commissioners’ meeting Sept. 14 began in chaos and name calling from an angry crowd protesting state mask and vaccine mandates, causing it to be quickly concluded as an official meeting. Two of the three commissioners remained to interact with the crowd in what ended up being called an impromptu, and often tense, town hall meeting.
About 40 people were protesting outside the county courthouse before the meeting started. At 1 p.m., the group entered the commissioners’ meeting room for the public comment period of the meeting. One of the protest organizers, Ashley Cooper, later said the group was escorted into the meeting by Klickitat County Undersheriff Tim Neher, but Neher says his presence was misunderstood; he’d talked with the protesters outside the courthouse but entered from another entrance and encountered the group inside without intention of accompanying it.
As the meeting reconvened at 1 p.m. after its morning session, Commission Chair David Sauter advised the group that the meeting was operating under the state mandate to wear masks. “I’m going to give people the opportunity first,” he said, saying there were masks available for anyone who wanted one. “I see you’re not wearing masks, and if you choose not to comply, I guess we will recess the meeting. I’m going to recess the meeting for five minutes, and we will reconvene on Zoom.”
Commissioner Dan Christopher then stated, “Before we do that, let me explain why we’re doing this. If we allow the meeting without masks, even though we hate them, it is considered an illegal public meeting. Which means I don’t get to pull this voucher out and pay people’s paychecks this week. Then you can explain to all these people why their paychecks didn’t get paid.”
There was an immediate pushback from the protesters. “An illegal meeting by what law?” one asked.
Sauter instantly stated, “We’re done. You may join us on Zoom if you want.”
“When are you coming back?” a protester asked.
“We’re not coming back,” Sauter said.
Cooper then told the commissioners, interrupting Sauter’s comments. “You’re refusing us our constitutional rights. You’re violating your oath of office. You’re refusing us our constitutional rights to air our grievances.”
“You have that opportunity,” Sauter said. “All you have to do is put on a mask, stay within the rules.”
“The constitution says any law made in [unclear] is null and void. You work for us. We want to be heard,” Cooper responded.
After that the protesters erupted into a cacophony of shouted slogans and demands to be heard on their own terms. “After 2022, you will not be working for us,” Cooper shouted as Sauter left the room. The other two commissioners, Christopher and Jacob Anderson, remained.
“Be brave like Cowlitz County!” was shouted, referring to that county’s refusal to follow the mask mandate.
“Protect our community members,” Cooper shouted. “All we ask is for you to do your job and protect our community. People are getting fired over this.”
One protester jumped to his feet, angrily shouting, “We are free! You Communists! You are Communists! You’re not doing your job!”
Another told the remaining commissioners, “You’re working for the Chinese Communist Party that makes [unclear], that makes the Chinese Communist Party happy. That’s who you work for, not the people of Klickitat County.”
“This is an illegal meeting,” Christopher responded.
“By what law?” Cooper rejoined.
More yelling erupted in voices too conflicting to be heard clearly. “I can’t speak if you’re yelling at me,” Christopher said.
Over time the voices and attitudes calmed some, and a dialog of sorts began. About an hour and a half later, the group left, after being addressed by Anderson, who waited about 30 minutes before speaking.
“We were between a rock and a rock,” Anderson says the Monday after the meeting. “It was not actually an illegal meeting. It was a meeting in which the public showed up that did not follow protocols, county protocols, and that doesn’t make it necessarily an illegal meeting. That just means that you have people who are not following the rules. In terms of what happened after that, when Commissioner Sauter said, ‘We’re going to recess,’ it was a very touchy situation. It could have blown up. I made the decision to sit there and to listen; I didn’t speak for 30 minutes, just let them blow off steam. I just wanted to defuse the situation; that was my goal.”
Asked if the meeting constituted an official county commissioners’ meeting, Anderson said no. “It was more of a town hall meeting, listening,” he says. “No official county business was conducted.”
Anderson says he and Christopher listened. “We heard what people wanted. They were angry, they were upset. They feel like people are telling them what to do with their own bodies. We listened, and we let them be heard. I hope that the letter that the three commissioners signed mollifies some of their fears.”
The letter he refers to is one that was drafted to Gov. Jay Inslee before the meeting started. In it, the three commissioners make clear to Inslee their sense that the mask mandate puts them in a very difficult situation in the county. “We are reaching out with dismay and concern with your mandated vaccine orders and the lack of respect for local involvement when it comes to decisions affecting our communities,” the letter begins. It was scheduled to come up in the meeting and be acted upon, something that was done later, after the crowd left and the commission was able to resume regular business. Christopher made mention of the letter as he addressed the crowd, adding they were making it hard to get it made official by interrupting county business.
Anderson spoke to the concern for repeated such interruptions. “I said at the end of the meeting, ‘We sat here and listened, but this doesn’t mean you get to do this again. We have rules, and we have requirements, and it’s for the safety of our staff. And if you come back, we require that you wear a mask, and if you don’t wear a mask, we will adjourn the meeting. And we will go back to only online meetings, like the City of White Salmon is doing. I don’t want to, I want to have access to the public and have people show up. But if people are not going to follow the established rules and decorum, then we’re going to have to do that.’ And so we’ll see. We’ll see Tuesday. We’re giving them one more chance.”
Christopher echoes that position. “I've tried to explain it to the people,” he says. “If they want to continue to come back unmasked, we will have to leave the room to comply with state law, even though that’s a law they don't believe in. If this happens ongoing, we will more than likely have a vote to close the meetings to the public and attend via Zoom or phone.
“I believe in civil discourse,” Christopher added. “I believe when congressmen and senators are sitting at the U.S. Capitol, there is dialogue. There is not screaming, there is no finger pointing. I do not believe in uncivil conversation. I will have civil conversations with anybody. I don’t care if you hate me and call me a Communist, just don’t scream, jumping out of your seat and being unsettled.”
Christopher says many of the protesters are basing their stands on some incorrect information. “I think a lot of them came in with information that they’ve heard on the news and on Facebook. I heard repeatedly, the governor’s laws not good because of the 30-day rule and the RCW; the sheriff even said that we’re 550 days and that the RCW has sections and one says he can do all this stuff, close the stores, close businesses, whatever he wants. And there is a 30-day rule that applies in section two, only section two, not section one [that affects the governor’s authority to enact mandates for longer periods of time].”
He adds that threats to recall all the commissioners would lead to a fate worse than the protesters imagine. “If we all get kicked off,” he says, “the governor appoints two [new commissioners], and then those two pick the third. So be careful what you wish for.”
Commissioner Sauter was contacted for comment for this story and said he would be available for comment shortly.