Baker County Commissioners heard from several local residents on Wednesday, Jan. 12, who urged commissioners to defend the state and federal constitutions and help businesses being harmed by pandemic-related mandates from Oregon Gov. Kate Brown.

The work session at the Baker County Events Center was a continuation of a discussion that started Dec. 15.

Baker County United, a county group formed last fall, is urging commissioners to adopt a resolution designating Baker as a “constitutional county.”

Proponents say that would help protect the county and its residents against what they consider unconstitutional mandates, including Brown’s executive orders requiring people to wear masks in some indoor public spaces, and, for employees in some industries, to either be vaccinated or receive a medical or religious exemption.

Commission Chairman Bill Harvey said the work session was scheduled to ensure people had a chance to express their views.

Commissioners made no decision about whether or not to adopt the ordinance.

“We’re here just to listen to you because the last meeting we had we were not able to give everybody the opportunity to speak,” Harvey said. “That’s all we’re asking.”

Kody Justus told commissioners that although the proposed resolution is “somewhat redundant,” he supports its adoption.

“I think our county officials with their oaths of office, they already understand and have promised to follow the federal and state constitution,” said Justus, a former candidate for the county commission. “The issues that I have, I think it would be a great idea to have a committee or something in the county to help understand what the constitution actually says on certain matters.”

Curtis Martin of North Powder said he thinks the chief goal should be “a return to true represented government at the county level.”

“And I don’t mean that in the generic term, I mean it in specific terms,” Martin said. “We already have one commissioner who decided to go off and not be here and join virtual because he considers this mask mandate and this social distancing as law. It’s not law; it’s a mandate that does not have the authority or the validation to make those edicts.”

Martin was referring toe Commissioner Bruce Nichols, who participated in the work session remotely.

Martin said Baker County United is asking commissioners to stand strong and emphasize that “we have authority, at the county level, that we’re not going to let the state or federal come over” and enforce mandates that are “totally unconstitutional.”

Penny Rienks said many people could not attend the meeting as they were “trying to save their businesses that these mandates have destroyed.”

“When are we the citizens of the United States, state, county, and city, going to start standing up for our God-given rights?” Rienks said. “That is why we need to be a constitutional county. We need to have our constitution abided by.”

Debbie Henshaw reminded commissioners that they work for the citizens and that they promised, in their oaths of office, to uphold both the state and federal constitutions.

Harvey, in responding to the mask mandate, said the county is obligated to enforce it for county employees only.

“We have no legal authority to mandate that any citizen do something else,” Harvey said. “So, there is no mask mandate from Baker County other than the employees that we have to deal with and that’s because of OSHA and SAIF. That’s what we have, that’s why you’re allowed to do whatever you want to do here today.”

He said he will not support mask or vaccination mandates.

Karen Riener of Richland talked about the mixing of government and corporate rule.

“Because we are very concerned about COVID, but we are also concerned about religious beliefs,” Riener said. “I do not have the shot because of religious beliefs. But you have to remember when these people that we are calling ‘the government’ make a rule, they are highly, highly influenced by lobbyists who come in with a lot of money and talk to these people a lot and give very, very persuasive arguments for why people need to get shots, wear a mask.”

She encouraged people to pay attention to the Oregon Legislature.

“And you’ll see that laws are being created through corporations. So, if you have a beef, deal with corporations, don’t throw it on the government because there’s a ton of very well-meaning government people who are trying to do their very best at the local level,” Riener said.

Nichols submitted written comments, which were read aloud, saying executive orders from the governor’s office have the force and effect of law until the legislature changes that authority or until the courts declare that order illegal and unconstitutional.

Justus spoke again, saying the county needs to “protect our ability to disagree with each other.”

“My fear is if we start letting decisions be made in different government, state or federal level, if it’s something that’s outside of what the constitution says they are able to do, we’re going to give away our ability to disagree,” he said.

Harvey said the commissioners, through the federal coordination process, have blocked actions such as the Blue Mountain Forest Plan revision process, preventing further road closures and restrictions on the use of public lands that make up half of Baker County’s 2 million acres.

“Baker County is one of the only counties left that has our rights intact. So, we do battle, we do fight back, and we are, I believe, winning,” Harvey said.

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