First things first: This isn’t a column about masks … or whether or not you think they are or aren’t effective. This is a story about how particular leaders and their leadership style functions in practical reality as a component of our own county government — and the very real consequences that affect us all when an elected leader willingly puts us and our tax dollars at risk.
Now, it’s no secret that Lewis County Commissioner Bobby Jackson doesn’t want to wear a mask. He’s detailed his anti-mask rhetoric several times in the past few months, both on his own Facebook page and on the record during public meetings, citing a medical exemption.
Documents and emails from a recent public records request indicate that Commissioner Jackson attempted numerous times to get around workplace masking requirements — despite having reasonable accommodation options, including face shields or working remotely, outlined for him by the county and despite being told numerous times — and admitting himself — that he was running the risk of being investigated and fined by Washington State Department of Labor & Industries.
Prior to the June 4 county public meeting, and just after the statewide workplace masking requirements were announced, Commissioner Jackson sent an email to county manager Erik Martin (June 4) stating that: “I will not support a ‘mandate’ that our employees wear masks in the workplace. I am not going to wear a mask, and my reasons are legitimate and they are protected by law.”
When a copy of this email from Jackson was forwarded to Lewis County Prosecuting Attorney Jonathan Meyer, Meyer responded: “This action is outside the authority of the Commissioner and is contrary to the applicable law. … Under the current emergency, this proclamation is considered law. To advocate and, frankly, encourage others to ignore the law is unwise, reckless and may be a violation of the Commissioner’s Oath of Office.”
Meyer also recommended that Commissioner Jackson’s comments be rescinded in writing.
The workplace masking requirements took effect officially on June 8. When Commissioner Jackson declined to follow the masking requirements — including shirking the common alternative of a face shield — in public meetings, people began to ask why.
First, Commissioner Jackson hung his hat on his medical deferral. And that’s fine — but Commissioner Jackson already had alternative “reasonable accommodations” outlined for him in writing: “ … for the employee to work remotely,” from his office or otherwise.
For two weeks, Commissioner Jackson sat in open, public meetings, without a mask or face shield.
So, on June 22, I emailed the BOCC, county manager and prosecutor, and asked if all of this was risking an L&I fine against the county (aka: taxpayers) — and why Commissioner Jackson was not utilizing a face shield in place of a mask, as outlined per his indicated reasonable accommodation, per his documented “medical deferral.”
On June 23, Commissioner Jackson appeared to respond on Facebook in a post:
“As the most visible county employee that doesn’t wear a mask, I made my reasons clear to my staff and employees. … I heard from a lot of people on both sides of this issue, and in the final analysis, it came down to choice. I will not wear a mask, nor will I wear a face shield. That said, I made the decision today to remove myself from meetings and remote from my office, because I do not want the taxpayers of Lewis County to have to pay a large L&I fine on my behalf. I am responsible for managing your dollars, and I won’t be the cause of financial loss to the county. And it would happen.”
He noted additionally: “There will be those who agree with my position, and those who won’t. In the end, it came down to a personal choice. I will not wear a mask. Period.”
This was on June 23 that Jackson made this statement. And there was no mention of the medical deferral. Jackson made it clear that it was primarily “personal choice.”
Prosecuting Attorney Jonathan Meyer responded to Jackson directly in another formal letter.
“First, your statement appears to be at odds with your public statement at a recent BOCC meeting. At the meeting, you claimed a medical exemption, yet in your Facebook post, you indicate a personal choice. Second, your refusal to wear a mask, or face shield, as you know is a violation of the law, regardless of our agreement with the law. While you are able to be in your office without a mask (assuming no one else is in the office), it does not exempt you on your way into the building.”
Meyer encouraged Commissioner Jackson, yet again, to use any of the reasonable accommodation options outlined for him.
Later that night, Commissioner Jackson posted on Facebook, “ … beginning Friday morning, whenever I enter the county courthouse, I will do so with a face shield on until I reach my office. I will not knowingly break the law, whether I agree with it or not. I will protect our county by doing the right thing.”
But instead of just wearing a face shield provided by the county like everyone else, Commissioner Jackson found a product from China called a “Transparent Environmental Mask,” commonly called a “spit guard,” to wear instead. The mask was a piece of plastic — not a true full-face shield — that stuck out from Commissioner Jackson’s chin. He stated that he began wearing this product in public meetings on July 9.
When I asked the county on July 13 if this product actually met the standard to be considered a “face shield,” they declined to provide a response..
Since the county couldn’t answer, I reached out to a media contact at L&I and the state Department of Health to get the official definition of what a “face shield” really was, per their documentation.
DOH gave me their definition verbally, over the phone on July 23: “A face shield covers the facial area and associated mucus membranes. Eyes, nose, and mouth are covered from any type of splashes, sprays, and bodily fluids. Face shields start at (the) top of the face and go down past your chin approximately an inch.”
L&I had a secondary point on July 27: “Spit guards are not covered in the L&I list of face coverings for coronavirus prevention approved for workplace settings.”
County Manager Erik Martin responded stating: “Based on the guidance from the Department of Labor and Industries, Commissioner Jackson will be wearing a full face shield when in public areas and meetings or will choose to participate remotely in county business.”
In a meeting on Thursday, Jackson participated remotely.
On that same day, L&I informed me that they had opened an “inspection” into the “Lewis County Government.”
Am I happy that L&I is looking into our county? No. But how many opportunities did Commissioner Jackson have to do the right thing? For how many weeks (almost two months)? You can read the public documents — partially obtained by yours truly after Commissioner Jackson violated his own attorney-client privilege by detailing his conversations with the Prosecutor’s Office on Facebook — and see exactly how many people advised Commissioner Jackson to make a different choice. Even state Republican Caucus legal wonks, too.
Now, it doesn’t matter what Commissioner Jackson does at home. It doesn’t matter to me if he doesn’t want to wear a mask on his personal time. But if he’s paid $80,000 / year, plus benefits, to be partially in charge of a health department, shouldn’t be able to follow their basic recommendations? Basic health mandates? Even if for no other reason than to protect the county from fines?
Honestly, this whole situation just felt like I was trying to explain to a high school girl why she can’t get away with wearing a tube top to school, to spite the dress code, and debunking all the attempts to get around it. It didn’t feel like leadership at all.
If I, as a parent, have to help my kids practice mask-wearing, Commissioner Jackson can practice, too.
Brittany Voie is a columnist for The Chronicle. She lives south of Chehalis with her husband and two young sons. She welcomes correspondence from the community at firstname.lastname@example.org.