June 24, 2022

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

San Clemente City Council sent home after councilwoman refuses to wear mask

A San Clemente city councilwoman sparked some controversy when she refused to wear a mask during a meeting.

Councilwoman Laura Ferguson was the only council member not wearing a mask during San Clemente’s Feb. 16 meeting, which was the first time the council had met in person for months.

The in-person part of the meeting didn’t last long. The council was sent home to reconvene the meeting on Zoom after Mayor Kathy Ward called Ferguson out for not wearing a mask.

“We have one council member who doesn’t have a mask on,” Ward said. “I am going to ask you to put a mask on and if you aren’t going to, you have the option of going home and we will wait for you to go home and you can Zoom into our meeting.”

“I just wanted to note to the public that I have plastic around me and plexiglass around me, and we are physically distanced between tables among members,” Ferguson responded. “I wore my mask in the room [during closed session] with the council members and I am not going to wear my mask right here because I have all the protocols in place around me. There is no way that anybody can be harmed by me, or likewise me harmed by anyone else.”

Ward made a motion to recess the meeting and continue it over Zoom. The motion passed 3 to 2, with Ferguson and Councilman Steve Knoblock dissenting.

During a phone interview this week, Ferguson reiterated that she felt the mask wasn’t necessary because the city had several safety measures in place. She said the desk was well-equipped with plexiglass and plastic dividers, and council members were more than 6 feet apart.

“I removed my mask … because I knew we had a long meeting ahead and I can’t wear that mask for seven hours and that’s how long our meetings last,” Ferguson said. “So I felt it was appropriate in my little bubble, so to speak, to remove the mask and participate in the meeting so that people hear me articulate and speak clearly as well.”

Ferguson is not the first Orange County politician to be criticized for not wearing a mask. Huntington Beach Councilman Tito Ortiz came under fire for his refusal to wear a mask at a meeting in January.

Mayor Pro Tem Gene James said over email this week that early this month, Interim City Manager Erik Sund told council members that they would be required to wear a mask to meet in person.

“I have no idea why Councilmember Ferguson refused to wear a mask,” James said. “It was an extraordinarily embarrassing episode and my sincerest hope is it is not ever repeated. Council needs to address the business of the city; engaging in petty squabbles is incredibly counterproductive. I was disappointed we could not meet in person.”

Knoblock said in a phone interview that council members were seated about 15 feet apart from one another during the meeting.

“We should have conducted our meeting, he said. “Masks are not a law. It’s not a crime not to wear a mask. It’s a health suggestion. Anyone that felt uncomfortable could have left the meeting and entered it by Zoom. To cancel the meeting, send staff and everyone home to Zoom was probably a major disruption and probably unnecessary.”

Councilman Chris Duncan said city staff came to the council meeting under the expectation that everyone was going to be wearing a mask.

“I don’t want to have to wear a mask either, I don’t think anybody does,” he said. “But we have to wear masks because it’s not just our own safety we need to be concerned about, it’s everyone’s safety and comfort.

“Once it was clear that not everyone was going to wear a mask, the only option really was to go back to the Zooming in from home.”

Brazil writes for Times Community News.