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PUBLIC FIRESTORM — Kris Estep of Barberville Baptist Church spoke at a Waynesville town board meeting opposition to a proposed local mask mandate.

An article in Wednesday’s print edition of The Mountaineer predicted Waynesville leaders would enact a local mask mandate at their meeting Tuesday night. That turned out to be wrong.

Despite the mayor and town board being on record supporting the mask mandate, the tide turned when more than 100 angry dissenters packed into town hall Tuesday night.

Waynesville Mayor Gary Caldwell attempted to distance himself from the proposed mask mandate by accusing The Mountaineer of misleading the public and causing an unnecessary drama in an attempt to sell papers.

Caldwell not only told the public he didn’t support a mask mandate at this time — contradicting what he’d told the newspaper just the day before — he claimed it wasn’t even on the table for discussion at the meeting.

“I am sorry about the media blowing this out of proportion. We can’t help what the media picks up and what the media puts out there,” Caldwell said. “This is all just totally out of hand. I don’t know why I have to apologize for the media.”

On Monday, however, Caldwell told The Mountaineer he supported the mask mandate. Caldwell said he would “more than likely” sign it into law Tuesday evening in the form of an emergency proclamation.

“To keep the citizens here in Waynesville safe, this will be a good step,” Caldwell said Monday. “It’s gotten to the point where we gotta do this to try to get those numbers to come down.”

The Mountaineer interviewed three other town board members Monday, who also said they supported the local mask mandate.

An article alerting the public to the proposed mask mandate then hit The Mountaineer’s website and Facebook page late Monday afternoon.

Shortly afterward, town board members began getting flooded with calls and emails from the public. By Tuesday morning, the phones at town hall were ringing off the hook and didn’t let up all day.

Caldwell’s insistence that a mask mandate wasn’t on the table — despite a draft mask mandate appearing in the town board’s meeting materials — confused the large crowd who had turned out.

“You can thank your local media for that,” Caldwell said, when members of the public questioned the inconsistency. “I don’t think I should have to be apologizing for the media.”

“No, but I think you need to chew their butts out,” a woman in the audience said.

“I agree,” Caldwell said.

“Maybe you should shut them down,” she said.

“I agree,” Caldwell replied again. “I apologize again for the media and if you ... I ain’t going there. I ain’t going there. That’s why I hide from the media.”

Most in attendance were skeptical and said it sounded like the newspaper was being used as a scapegoat.

“I think that it’s probably that you guys, the politicians, are trying to push away because all the activity that showed up at your door today was a bit of a cluster for you,” a woman in the audience said.

Caldwell was the only one on the town board who claimed the newspaper’s reporting wasn’t true.

Several in attendance contacted aldermen and town officials over the course of the day leading up to the meeting and had confirmed for themselves that the town board was considering a mask mandate.

“We’ve talked to the aldermen and we met with the head of the police department, and everybody thought that was what was happening. So how is everybody confused?” asked Melanie Williams, who helped organize the public opposition turnout.

“Don’t hold us responsible for what goes in that newspaper. That’s all I am going to say,” Caldwell said.

How it all started

The proposed mask mandate had been discussed at the past two town meetings, both of which are captured in recordings.

Alderman Chuck Dickson first broached the idea of a local mask mandate in late September.

“I would like to have the town attorney draw up an ordinance requiring face coverings,” Dickson said at the Sept. 22 town meeting.

Dickson said he wanted to get one in place prior to the fall festivals happening downtown as extra ammunition for event organizers to make festival-goers wear masks.

“They would have the force of the town behind them,” Dickson said at the time. “It would have the weight of a misdemeanor, but certainly we don’t want our officers to issue citations except in extreme conditions if someone is not willing to comply.”

Waynesville Police Chief David Adams, who was at the meeting, said even if officers wrote tickets, he wasn’t sure they would stick.

“Our district attorney said they would not prosecute any mask ordinance citations,” Adams said.

“That’s not the reason for doing this, but we may have to deal with the district attorney,” Dickson replied.

At the town board’s next meeting on Oct. 13, Waynesville Town Attorney Bill Cannon presented the board with a draft mask mandate.

“At the last town meeting, I was instructed to draft an ordinance dealing with the issue of face coverings,” Cannon said.

Cannon said he believed the best approach would be an emergency proclamation, which technically wouldn’t have to be voted on by the whole board, but could be signed unilaterally by Mayor Caldwell.

First, however, the town needed to clean up the language in its emergency declaration ordinance, Cannon said. The existing version wasn’t adequate, and until it was fixed, the mayor couldn’t issue the mask proclamation, Cannon said.

“I prepared a new ordinance that corrected that,” Cannon said, presenting the board with a new emergency declaration ordinance.

The board then discussed whether they should simply pass the new language that night, or whether they should hold a public hearing on it first.

Caldwell said he preferred to have a public hearing.

“I’ll make a motion that we set a public hearing for this amendment to that ordinance to that effect,” Caldwell said.

But Alderman Jon Feichter countered with a different motion. He said it seemed more important to hold a public hearing on the real issue — which was the mask mandate — rather than the emergency declaration language.

“I just think the issues we’re talking about are two separate things,” Feichter said. “I make the motion we go ahead and adopt the emergency ordinance right now and then have the public hearing on face coverings.”

Alderman Chuck Dickson also wanted to pass the new emergency ordinance that night, but for a different reason: Once that technicality was out of the way, it would pave the way for the mask proclamation.

“I’m ready to adopt it,” Dickson said of the new language. “And one of the reasons is that I am ready for the mayor to issue a proclamation about wearing face masks.”

Caldwell said he would be more comfortable, however, with holding a public hearing on the emergency declaration language. But he agreed to take up the mask proclamation once it was out of the way.

“If this is adopted, then we’ve got a proclamation,” Caldwell said.

Confusion ensues

The intermingling of the emergency declaration ordinance and the mask proclamation ended up being a source of frustration for members of the public at Tuesday night’s meeting on Oct. 27.

The agenda that came out prior to the meeting included drafts of both — the mask proclamation and the emergency ordinance.

It wasn’t clear which topic the public hearing was technically on as both were listed under the same agenda item. When trying to sort it out, The Mountaineer got different answers from different town board members. So, the newspaper turned to Town Manager Rob Hites for clarification.

“There has been some confusion over whether the public hearing Tuesday is on the emergency declaration ordinance, the face covering proclamation, or both,” The Mountaineer wrote in an email to Hites.

“The ordinance and proclamation are set for public hearing, but the proclamation is an example of how the ordinance could be used,” Hites replied via email.

Hites' email seemed to clearly say the public hearing was on both.

But come Tuesday night, Cannon told the audience the mask mandate wasn’t in fact part of the public hearing.

“Why was it included in the agenda then?” an audience member asked.

“The proclamation was given as an example,” Hites said.

“That’s a pretty bad example,” the audience member countered.

The agenda item in question read “Sample Proclamation Declaring a State of Emergency,” and was accompanied by a “sample” mask mandate.

“It was a sample of what the mayor would declare in case he asked for a declaration of emergency,” Hites said.

Audience members were skeptical of the mask mandate being referred to as a “sample.”

“This is a bait and switch,” audience member Melanie Williams said.

“I am going to set the record straight. We are not here to vote in a mask mandate,” Caldwell said.

“Well, what are you voting on then?” several audience members asked at once.

“We are voting on an ordinance here,” Caldwell said.

“But what is it? One of your aldermen told me it was a mask mandate last night,” audience member Raife Davis said.

“One last speech and you’re going out the door,” Caldwell told him.

“That’s fine,” Davis said.

“Go, get out then,” Caldwell said.

“I mean, what is it then?” Davis said, still trying to ascertain what the subject matter was supposed to be.

“You’re out. You’re out,” Caldwell said, motioning for police to escort him out.

Davis was greeted by cheers from the overflow crowd still waiting in the lobby.

“This is ridiculous,” said Williams, among those who had a seat in the board room.

“You can thank your local media for that,” Caldwell said. “Why would we pass an ordinance when we don’t have a study done on it? If it did come to that, you’d have look at the matrix of it and how many counts are up like that before you even put in an ordinance like that.”

However, neither Caldwell nor the board members had ever mentioned the idea of doing studies in past board discussions or interviews on the proposed mask mandate.

Back-and-forth between Caldwell and audience members continued to ensue, including complaints that the public hearing was cut off after 32 minutes, leaving a long line of people who wanted to speak out in the lobby.

“You have this very divisive issue and we have a lot of people out here, and you are shutting it down and not even letting them talk,” an audience member said.

Caldwell blamed that on The Mountaineer as well.

“Talk to your local media about that. Don’t talk to me about it,” Caldwell said.

Audience members in the room continued to drill down on whether the real motive of a mask mandate was being cloaked in the emergency declaration ordinance.

“If you adopt that tonight, does that also give you the right to then decide tomorrow that it becomes a misdemeanor if we don’t wear whatever you deem right?” a woman in the audience asked.

“It gives us the …,” Caldwell said, trailing off.

“The right to do it,” she said, finishing his sentence for him.

But Caldwell simply said he wasn’t going to issue any such a proclamation.

“I’m not. You’d have to have all the information to go with something that huge,” Caldwell said.

In an interview Monday, Caldwell was asked whether he anticipated pushback from the public Tuesday night.

“I don’t,” he said.

When asked whether he was being pressured to do the mask proclamation by other board members, he said “no.”

“This is something that Chuck brought up, but I still feel good about it. Especially with the numbers the way they are right now,” Caldwell said, referring to rising COVID cases.

However, constituents who contacted Caldwell over the course of the day Tuesday said he had blamed other board members for the idea. Rachel Plemmons recounted how one such conversation with Caldwell was relayed to her.

“The person asked how his day had been and he said it had been awful, that they had been flooded with calls and people were so upset,” said Plemmons. “He said ‘I am thinking about throwing out the whole thing,’ and said he was never on board and it wasn’t his idea to back it in the first place."

‘Lack of clarity’

When it came time for a vote on the emergency declaration ordinance, audience members called on Caldwell to hold off.

“Could you postpone until there’s clarity on what you are doing?” Williams asked.

“We got to move forward. We have a list a mile long to get through,” Caldwell said, referring to the rest of the topics on the night’s agenda.

But when Caldwell called for a motion to pass the emergency ordinance, none of the aldermen piped up.

Instead, Feichter countered with a motion to table the whole thing.

“Mr. Mayor, I make a motion we postpone any further discussion on this state-of-emergency declaration due to extreme confusion and lack of clarity,” Feichter said.

Alderwoman Julia Freeman seconded, and it passed unanimously.

In an interview on Sunday, Feichter had raised concerns that the co-mingling of the emergency declaration and “sample proclamation” — a.k.a. proposed mask mandate — would be confusing to the public.

“I would be wholly uncomfortable in implementing a mask mandate based on the content of the agenda,” Feichter said Sunday. “I didn’t think it was necessary to hold the public hearing on the emergency declaration ordinance, but we definitely need to hold a public hearing on a mask mandate.”

Alderman Dickson, who first floated the idea, disagreed.

“I don’t see the need to do it,” he said, also in an interview Sunday. “The issue has become so political that it would be fruitless to have one.”

On the record

Below are comments from town board members that appeared in the Wednesday print edition of The Mountaineer.

The paper went to press before Tuesday night’s meeting, but had foreshadowed aldermen’s views on the proposed mask mandate. By Wednesday morning when the paper came out, the mask mandate's future seemed rocky at best.

Alderman Chuck Dickson

“The science shows this is what we need to do to get a grasp on this pandemic. As far as the economy goes, I think it would help us. If everyone is wearing a mask, I think people feel safer going out. I am not interested in citing people at this point in time. I think we need to remind them. I think most will comply. If someone absolutely refuses, I’m not quite sure what to do.”

Alderwoman Julia Freeman

“I don’t know if it will persuade some of the naysayers, but I think it is taking care of the community and showing people we are taking this pandemic seriously. I think it is the right thing to do at this point, especially going into winter months. The businesses who are asking patrons to wear masks, it allows them to say, ‘Hey, put your mask on. It’s not me it’s the town.”

Alderman Jon Feitcher

“To me we are trending in the wrong direction. We aren’t any closer to beating this thing back than we were in June or July. We would be taking a strong stand that says ‘Waynesville wears masks.’ Enforcement has long been my most significant concern. I certainly don’t want our police department to have to run around telling people to put their masks on.”

Mayor Gary Caldwell

Caldwell also noted the challenge of enforcing a mask mandate.

“I was concerned about putting the pressure on police to go out there. It opens up a can of worms. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but if that’s what we have to do, then that’s what we have to do.”

Caldwell cited the positive COVID case by a town employee that resulted in the finance and billing department being shut down last week. All 11 co-workers in the building were considered a close contact and had to quarantine because they weren’t religiously wearing masks at work.

“That was kind of the icing on the cake for me,” Caldwell said of the town’s in-house situation. “This is something that we need to do for now.”

Caldwell doesn’t wear a mask during town board meetings. While the other board members do, he says as the mayor, he is facilitating the meeting and has to speak often, calling for motions or announcing the next item up on the agenda.

“I am just about speaking the whole period of time. It would be hard for me to try to do that,” Caldwell said, also noting that the board all sits 6 feet apart.

He often goes 10 minutes or more at a time without speaking, however.

“I guess there is no reason I couldn’t put it back on,” Caldwell said, of those times in between. “I hadn’t considered that.”

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