Exercising your right to be wrong in Nevada County

What exactly does “Nevada County Strong” mean, especially when county officials stand accused of strong-arming private citizens for exercising their constitutional right to organize and object to government mandates?

Attorneys for the Nevada County Restaurant Coalition and other aggrieved parties may get a chance to ask the author of the phrase, Supervisor Heidi Hall, if a $1.5 million suit against the county ever goes to trial.

Hall coined the term to describe the county’s reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic during the year she chaired the county Board of Supervisors. But if claims alleged in the suit are true, some of the county’s actions were hardly exemplary of the “Nevada County way.”

The suit, which the county is trying to get dismissed, is seeking damages for losses allegedly caused by county and state pandemic mandates that closed or throttled local businesses.

When the mandates were imposed by the state last spring, Nevada County officials urged residents to embrace the “Nevada County way”; Play nice with each other and follow the rules. But as it has become clear to anybody who is paying attention, restaurants, bars, gyms and other venues are operating in open defiance of the mandates.

Even worse in the minds of the supervisors, people were challenging county officials to do something about it. Take Ken Paige, co-owner of Friar Tuck’s, an organizer of the coalition, and a party to the current suit. Paige told the supervisors in public that he would continue to operate regardless of restrictions.

 “You can point to me as probably the instigator of all the issues you’re facing, and I had no idea all of this would happen,” Paige said. “But we’ve rallied. We have 300 to 400 people now, we have a war room of people.”

Paige added he urged other business owners to reopen despite the COVID-19 mandates. “It’s going to take a bulldozer to take us down and we are going to continue to do what’s necessary, safely, responsibly,” he said. “We’re going to reopen all of our businesses, all of our cities, we’re not going to close.”

“I’m not going to cooperate with my own destruction,” Sergio Martignago of Sergio’s Caffe told the supervisors. Friar Tucks and Old Towne Café were cited by county officials for refusing to follow the mandates, and accumulated fines of about $5,000 each when they sat down with county representatives to resolve the matter.

That’s when, according to the suit, “…defendant (County Counsel Katherine) Elliott stated that as a condition to reinstating the operating permits of, and reducing the fines on Friar Tuck’s, Old Town Café and Coalition members, plaintiffs were to ‘behave’ and stop asking people to write letters to county and local officials.”

The suit also claims “Elliott stated that plaintiffs’ establishment of the coalition would be considered as grounds to refuse to negotiate a lowering of the fines…” In other words, punishment for organizing opposition.

In comments when the county moved to dismiss the suit, Elliott said the request for the group to “behave” was part of normal negotiations. Or maybe, as the suit alleges, the efforts to silence opponents of the mandates “were undertaken on behalf of” the supervisors and was official policy of the county.

After all, allowing opponents to publicly defy the county might lead citizens to believe the supervisors were impotent or have little appetite for enforcement of the state’s pandemic mandates. The record suggests the latter is the case.

When county public health officials requested an enforcement tool in the form of an urgency ordinance that would have made state and local mandates enforceable by hefty fines, it was rejected by Supervisors Ed Scofield and Sue Hoek. (An urgency ordinance requires votes from four of the five supervisors to pass.) Scofield said there was no real urgency because most businesses were in compliance.

The county has since instituted a complaint driven process, where citizens are invited to file complaints against businesses not complying with COVID-19 regulations. Mali LaGoe, acting county development agency director, said every complaint is followed up by a letter to the business and is shared with the appropriate jurisdiction.

After that? In the words of Amy Irani, county environmental health director: “Failure to comply unfortunately results in enforcement action, which is the last thing we want to do.” So they don’t.

Current supervisors chair Dan Miller and Hoek decided to float a “Reopen Nevada County” resolution that would encourage the state to pay attention to the concerns of small counties while providing clearer guidance on what’s permissible.

The resolution was based on a template developed by Assemblyman Kevin Kiley and embraced by other elected Republican officials in the north state, and has already been passed by 11 other counties. Miller conceded the other attempts got no traction from the state (several of the resolutions were just ignored), but that didn’t stop him from spending four hours on the matter before the resolution was tabled.

It would be unfair to put the entire onus on the county. Nevada City turned down $100,000 from the county to hire an additional officer to enforce COVID-19 mandates. Police Chief Chad Ellis said extra staffing wasn’t needed in part because only one business wasn’t in compliance at that time.

Grass Valley took the money for overtime and other enforcement expenses related to the pandemic. Have you seen either jurisdiction crack down on any of our scofflaws? Maybe Mill Street and historic Nevada City aren’t patrolled on a regular basis.

Then there’s the public rallies where nobody is wearing a mask and the recent closing celebration of a popular Grass Valley restaurant, crowded all day with diners not wearing masks. It’s no wonder the state had to lower the bar before Nevada County could move from the purple tier to the red tier.

Meanwhile, businesses that are trying to play by the rules—businesses like the Move! Fitness Studio in Nevada City—are beginning to look like suckers. They are trying to get by for now by holding morning walking sessions and keeping in contact with their clients over the phone, but that doesn’t come close to covering the rent.

“It’s frustrating and it’s confusing when we are very aware that we are one of the few gyms that are actually closed,” co-owner Wendy Riley told The Union when the county was still in the purple tier.

“We don’t want to be the gym cops,” said co-owner Marilyn Rohrbacher. “We just hope and pray that everybody does the right thing but from what we understand that’s not happening, so it just leaves us very frustrated.”

Since their elected leaders are showing little inclination to enforce the state mandates, Riley and Rohrbacher might as well join the other scofflaws. 

Observations from the center stripe: Stimi edition

IF YOU don’t need that $1,400 stimulus check and have grand children, you should give them the money. They’re going to pay for it anyway…”STIMI” IS the slang term for your stimulus check. If it sounds like play money, maybe it’s because we’re financing it with more debt…THERE ARE reports that half of the Republicans in the House aren’t getting vaccinated. How do our two representatives stand on the matter?…CONSERVATIVES WERE furious over the bank and auto industry bailouts, even though the money was paid back. Why aren’t they complaining about the Trump airline bailout that will never be repaid?…THIS STUFF must be good: Trump Blanc De Noir won a “Sparkling Sweepstakes” award at the annual wine competition sponsored by the San Francisco Chronicle, which has never missed an opportunity to knock the former president…

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