Tensions flare at vaccination meeting

Board chair orders room to clear as gathering turns raucous

A tense meeting that drew many opponents of a proposed vaccination policy for county employees digressed into a shouting match after Supervisor Bea Gonzales ordered the chambers to clear following repeated interruptions from audience members.

Sheriff’s deputies escorted some members of the public out of the room that were yelling taunts at Gonzales as well as the supervisors that spoke in support of the vaccination and testing mandate Aug. 24.

Gonzales, who as chair of the board had to tell the audience members to wait their turn to speak as they talked over Supervisors Kollin Kosmicki and Bob Tiffany, finally exclaimed “I’m done” and told the room to clear.

“I just had to clear the chambers today,” she said as the meeting resumed. “Do you think I feel good about that? No. I feel very, very unhappy about that. The comments that were yelled at me when they were exiting? They don’t even know me.”

On Aug. 10, the supervisors voted 3-1 to direct staff to draft a policy that would require San Benito County employees to be vaccinated against Covid-19 or get tested twice a week. Supervisor Peter Hernandez dissented.

The policy was scheduled to be considered at the Aug. 24 meeting. The agenda, when it was posted on Aug. 18, mentioned a consideration of an “employee testing and vaccination policy, subject to meet and confer” with employee labor groups.

But the actual text of the draft policy was not given to the supervisors and posted online for the public until nearly 11pm on Aug. 23, according to Gonzales, less than 12 hours before the 9am meeting on Aug. 24.

“I need the documents in my hand so I can digest them,” she said. “Staff, if you want me to do the right thing, you must do the right thing and give me the tools so I can do my job. You failed me.”

Hernandez questioned the legality of the agenda’s language and late addition of the draft text, citing issues surrounding the set of laws governing public meetings known as the Brown Act.

Lacking in the description was the word “mandate,” Hernandez said, adding that it only mentioned a “policy.”

“We’re agreeing to basically destroy the public’s trust,” he said. “Why are we avoiding the ‘mandate’ language if we are trying to be transparent? There’s a reason why. Because we want to try to push it through, not because we want the public to understand what we’re deciding on and be transparent. That is not the way we do business. That is dishonest.”

County Counsel Barbara Thompson said the agenda does not violate the Brown Act because it contains a description that allows the public to understand what is going to be discussed. In addition, all documents do not have to be attached to an agenda before the 72-hour posting requirement before the meeting, according to Thompson.

Before the chambers were cleared, most of the audience spoke out against the policy as well as the vaccine itself, citing alleged side effects listed in the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System. Also known as VAERS, the system provides self-reported data from people experiencing adverse side effects after receiving a vaccine. 

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise that the data does not provide context regarding a person’s medical history, and it is unknown if a vaccine was the cause of the side effect or not. A disclaimer on the CDC website also reads that VAERS “reports may include incomplete, inaccurate, coincidental and unverified information.”

Tiffany said the county has an obligation under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to protect its employees.

“This is not a political decision, it’s not a religious decision,” he said. “It’s one based on science. There’s absolutely no question that vaccines protect the vast majority of people against severe infection.”

The supervisors decided to push consideration of the policy to the end of the Aug. 24 meeting, where they are currently discussing other items. However, the majority of the supervisors expressed interest in moving the item to a special meeting on Aug. 25 to allow the members to review the draft text.

Check back later for updates to this developing story.