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Nevada City mayor fuels controversy over governor’s mask order

FILE — Nevada City Mayor Reinette Senum listens to the lengthy public comment given during a’s council meeting in December 2019 regarding the potential removal of her mayor’s title.
Elias Funez/efunez@theunion.com

Nevada City Mayor Reinette Senum is no stranger to controversy.

Last year, she defeated a move by fellow City Council members to censure her after she was accused of misrepresenting the council’s position and actively soliciting opposition to the 5G wireless telecom regulations — and won reelection just months later.

Senum drew national attention in 2016 for remarks made on Facebook regarding police brutality, a firestorm she said took years to overcome.

And now, Senum is back in statewide headlines for more social media posts in which she questioned Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent order for all Californians to wear masks when in public.

“The governor oversees departments and agencies, but cannot make orders unilaterally. … He is not a king; he doesn’t have that authority.”— Reinette SenumNevada City mayor

“As you go about your day today, KNOW there is NO LAW that Orders you to Wear a Mask,” Senum posted on her personal Facebook page Saturday. “Our Governor does NOT have that unilateral power to make such orders. While I know the HEADLINES over the last couple days have stated something entirely different, that is because journalism is dead.

“Again, THERE IS NO LAW THAT STATES YOU MUST WEAR A MASK. Ask our local Police chief or officers. They will not, and cannot, cite ANYBODY for not wearing a mask because the law does not exist.”

Senum’s post was shared widely, with both condemnation and approbation flowing.

“I feel any politician needs to reel themselves in when it comes to any public social media claims or stance,” Cynthia Copier, a local resident, told The Union, citing her concern over the recent spike in confirmed cases in Nevada County. “I think it’s very dangerous to use your position in politics to spread questionable information. It’s dangerous for the community … I’m concerned about our local businesses. We want Nevada County to stay open, we want our small business to survive. If people refuse to wear masks, they are putting the business and the employees in jeopardy.”

The Nevada City Police Department took to its own Facebook page to issue a statement recommending that the community and visitors continue to social distance and to wear masks, pointing to the governor’s recommendation. The department echoed a statement released by the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office, stating it would be inappropriate to criminally enforce the governor’s mandate, adding, “We will continue to operate in an educational capacity in partnership with the county health office.”

And later Saturday, Vice Mayor Erin Minett — who takes over the mayoral role in July — also issued a statement. Minett stressed Senum was expressing her personal opinions, not the views of the city of Nevada City, adding, “Right now my biggest concern is that our businesses stay open and recover.”

According to Minett, she felt compelled to post on Facebook after being contacted by concerned business owners — and after shopping at SPD Market and witnessing a man verbally abuse an employee, “screaming he didn’t have to wear a mask because the mayor said he didn’t have to.”

Some business owners, said Minett, are concerned Senum’s post could endanger their livelihood.

“They are trying to keep up with everything that happens every single day, trying to rebuild their businesses,” Minett said. “They’re afraid people won’t come into their store if they see people without masks.”

With so much uncertainty, Minett said, the governor’s mandate could help achieve some consistency.

“The (business owners) just want people to shop, they want people to feel safe in Nevada City — and so do I,” she said. “I want our businesses to recover.”

Minett acknowledged some shoppers might refuse to patronize a business that is demanding its customers wear masks. But, she said, the majority of the feedback she has received is from those who have health concerns regarding people refusing to wear masks.

Senum explains stance

Contacted by phone Sunday, Senum said she would be happy to sit down with anybody and explain her position.

Her Facebook post, Senum said, was not about masks per se, but about the legality of an “executive order” from Newsom.

“He declared it was an order,” she said. “There is no order. The governor oversees departments and agencies, but cannot make orders unilaterally. … He is not a king, he doesn’t have that authority.”

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, reporting Sunday on Senum’s stance, an earlier executive order by the governor gave the state “the ability to enforce regulations from the (California Department of Public Health), and the recent mask order does have an enforcement component. Violating the order could result in a misdemeanor and/or a fine, according to the (Department of Health), although most enforcement has come in the form of educating the violator.”

Senum lays part of the blame on the media, citing “fake headlines and disingenuous articles” that mislead the public into believing the governor has the authority to make this decision.

She also castigated county, and state officials, for “mixed messaging.”

Like Minett, Senum said she has been “bombarded” with calls from residents. Some of those calls, she added, are from business owners who feel it’s dangerous for their employees to be forced to wear masks.

“I have to look at, what do I do?” she said. “Are we expecting our Public Works (staff) to wear a mask when working on the hot streets during a heat wave? Our police officers to wear masks everywhere, in addition to all their gear? Are we expecting cooks in commercial kitchens to wear masks all day?”

Across-the-board mask mandates come with their own inherent risks, Senum said, insisting she is not against masks.

“The truth of the matter, it is a nuanced complicated debate about masks,” Senum said, adding she had encouraged the city and the county early on to quarantine and to wear masks. But, she said, the time for that has now passed.

“Now we have to go out and put into practice the mechanisms to protect the most vulnerable for the long haul — probably one to two years,” Senum said. “You can’t expect everyone to wear masks for two years. What is the end game here?”

Senum said she would recommend ensuring caregivers and family members of immune-compromised or elderly individuals to wear masks, and to work to boost immune systems and ensure social distancing.

But, she said, the government can’t expect the general public to do this indefinitely, adding, “It’s not sustainable.”

Senum compares the government response to COVID-19 to PG&E’s planned power shut-offs last year to decrease wildfire danger.

“Those broad sweeping blackouts were bad for the community, they came with a lot of damage,” she said. “Now PG&E is trying to learn from its mistakes, learn from the data, with more targeted, smaller, sectionalized grids. That’s how public health should be responding to this: Adjusting accordingly as the information comes in, targeting our efforts to be more effective, but less disruptive to the public as a whole.”

Dissent over public duty

Senum insists her Facebook post was not made to present the position of Nevada City or the City Council. But she also firmly believes her stance is mandated by her oath of office.

“I am abiding by the oath of office I took, first and foremost,” Senum said. “My social media posts are secondary to this.”

Even though she is an elected official, Senum said, she has the right to express her personal beliefs — and she believes mandating the wearing of masks is illegal.

And, she suggested, she would not be forced to post on social media if the press was doing its job.

“The public is being misled,” Senum said. “What other options do you have? Where else are we to go? If we don’t have press doing their job, and we don’t have elected officials doing their job, to uphold the Constitution? That’s what I’m doing.”

Other elected officials, however, disagree on using social media to promulgate personal beliefs.

“As public officials, we are charged with keeping our community safe,” said Grass Valley City Council member Hilary Hodge, calling Senum’s post out as “tone-deaf” and dangerous for the community.

“In the current global pandemic, it is important that we disseminate the most accurate, scientific, expert information available,” Hodge said. “Nevada County is the oldest county in California by average age. Our local hospital manages just 20 ICU beds. Misinformation about public safety that might result in a spike in COVID-19 cases could have dire consequences for our community.”

Hodge said she would not typically take another elected official to task, but felt it was needed in this case.

“It’s tough,” she said. “She is beloved in this community, she has volunteered for so many causes, she has worked so hard to beautify Nevada City for 20 years. … This could just have terrible consequences for our community. When it comes to health and safety, we have an obligation to the community to ensure we give out the most accurate and scientific information we can. I would hate for people to see her post and think, well, she’s the mayor, so it must be true.

“We have a bigger responsibility to the public to make sure we are doing the right thing.”

Although they have different perspectives on how to achieve it, the end goal is the same — the community’s economic survival.

“I hope the city survives this,” Minett said. “We will be hard-pressed. I admire the people who are working so hard to keep their doors open, to keep it as safe as they possibly can. … It’s OK to disagree — but just be kind, be considerate on both sides. As a community. I’m hoping as things calm down a little bit, that people will take a deep breath and be kinder to each other.”

Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at lizk@theunion.com.

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