Androscoggin County Commissioner John Michael of Auburn, center, speaks privately with Commissioner Brian Ames of Lewiston last month during a conversation about the state’s mask mandate at a commission meeting in Auburn. Chairwoman Sally Christner of Turner is on the right. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

AUBURN — Following a contentious meeting two weeks ago when more than three dozen people, nearly all not wearing masks, came in support of a proposed controversial anti-mask resolution, the Androscoggin County Commission will meet Wednesday remotely via Zoom videoconference.

Commissioners are scheduled to meet virtually Wednesday because of space constraints at the Androscoggin County courthouse, according to commission Chairwoman Sally Christner of Turner. At first, the meeting was scheduled to be closed to the public, with only commissioners and county employees allowed  in the room. But now, all commissioners will meet virtually.

The public can watch and listen to the commissioners on Zoom.

After more than two hours of public discussion and debate at its Feb. 3 meeting on an anti-mask  resolution proposed by Commissioner Isaiah Lary of Wales, commissioners postponed taking action after Commissioner John Michael of Auburn offered a different resolution on the subject.

Commissioner Terri Kelly of Mechanic Falls moved to table the discussion to give her time to consider the two proposals.

The decision caused the spectators in the overcrowded room to shout “shame” and “cowards.”

Because the tabling motion came following the completion of public comment, no further public comment will be allowed, Christner said, unless the original resolution gets amended or changed in some way. The meeting will pick up at the same point when the issue was tabled.

Calling the executive orders issued by Gov. Janet Mills to combat the COVID-19 pandemic unconstitutional, Lary has submitted an amended resolution that kicks his fight up a notch. In addition to calling for the county to not enforce the mask mandate, the new resolution forbids the county from spending funds, resources and manpower to enforce the order and calls on the county administrator to file suit against the state in the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

If Lary’s amendment gets seconded, public comment will be allowed on the new measure, Christner said.

Christner said she has received more than 130 emails on the resolution, with at least 100 in opposition to Lary’s proposal. She added that many of them did not attend the last meeting because they felt the county building was not a safe environment because of the lack of masks being worn.

In addition to the vast majority of the public who attended the last meeting not wearing masks, Lary did not wear a mask, nor has he at any county commission meeting.

Commissioners Michael, Brian Ames of Lewiston and County Administrator Larry Post, who have frequently not worn masks at meetings, did wear them at the Feb. 3 meeting.

In response to the lack of masks at the last meeting, Attorney General Aaron Frey sent a letter to commissioners saying they are required to wear coverings at public meetings.

“My office has received reports that at one or more public meetings of the Androscoggin County Commissioners, there were individuals in attendance, including commissioners, who were not wearing masks,” Frey wrote. “I am writing to advise you that pursuant to an executive order, the commissioners are legally obligated to require that all persons attending public meetings, including the commissioners themselves, wear face coverings. Beyond the legal obligation, the use of face coverings is critical to protecting the public health and deterring further spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus.”

“The Executive Orders are constitutional and are enforceable through civil and criminal processes. Also, counties, municipalities and other political subdivisions have no authority to exempt themselves from Executive Orders, and any effort to do so would be of no legal effect,” he added.

Responding to the AG’s letter, Christner said, “Just suffice it to say the Attorney General will not have to contact me a second time.”

She added that part of the reason for the Zoom meeting was not knowing if Lary would voluntarily wear a face covering.

“I will not put the county in legal peril,” Christner said.

The debate has prompted a recall effort against Ames, Michael and Lary.

Also on the agenda is for commissioners to decide the format for future meetings  — whether in person, Zoom or a hybrid.

Wednesday’s meeting is scheduled to start at 5:15 p.m. The Zoom address is on the county website.

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