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San Clemente City Council sent home after councilwoman refuses to wear mask

A screenshot of a San Clemente City Council meeting from last week.
A screenshot of a San Clemente City Council meeting from last week. Councilwoman Laura Ferguson is not wearing a mask.
(Screenshot by Ben Brazil)

A San Clemente city councilwoman caused some controversy last week when she refused to wear a mask during a meeting.

Councilwoman Laura Ferguson was the only council member not wearing a mask during San Clemente’s Feb. 16 meeting, which was the first time the council had met in person for months.

The in-person part of the meeting didn’t last long. The council was sent home to reconvene the meeting on Zoom after Mayor Kathy Ward called Ferguson out for not wearing a mask.

“We have one council member who doesn’t have a mask on,” Ward said at the meeting. “I am going to ask you to put a mask on and if you aren’t going to, you have the option of going home and we will wait for you to go home and you can Zoom into our meeting.”

“I just wanted to note to the public that I have plastic around me and and plexiglass around me and we are physically distanced between tables among members,” Ferguson responded. “I wore my mask in the room [during closed session] with the council members and I am not going to wear my mask right here because I have all the protocols in place around me. There is no way that anybody can be harmed by me, or likewise me harmed by anyone else.”

Ward made a motion to recess the meeting and continue it over Zoom. The motion passed 3-2, with Ferguson and Councilman Steve Knoblock dissenting.

During a phone interview this week, Ferguson said she felt the mask wasn’t necessary because the city had several safety measures in place during the meeting. She said the desk was well-equipped with plexiglass and plastic dividers, and council members were more than 6 feet apart.

“I removed my mask for the meeting because I knew we had a long meeting ahead and I can’t wear that mask for seven hours and that’s how long our meetings last,” Ferguson said. “So I felt it was appropriate in my little bubble, so to speak, to remove the mask and participate in the meeting so that people hear me articulate and speak clearly as well.”

“But I don’t think this was about my mask at all,” Ferguson continued. “In my opinion, the mayor singled me out for not wearing my mask ... She just dislikes me. And any chance to humiliate and embarrass me, she does. This was a political stunt.”

Ward did not respond to a request for comment.

Ferguson is not the first Orange County politician to be criticized for not wearing a mask. Huntington Beach Councilman Tito Ortiz came under fire for his refusal to wear a mask at a meeting in January.

Mayor Pro Tem Gene James said over email this week that in early February, Interim City Manager Erik Sund told council members that they would be required to wear a mask in order to meet in person.

Ferguson disputed that the masks were made a requirement when the city chose to reconvene in-person council meetings.

“I have no idea why Councilmember Ferguson refused to wear a mask,” James said. “It was an extraordinarily embarrassing episode and my sincerest hope is it is not ever repeated. Council needs to address the business of the city; engaging in petty squabbles is incredibly counterproductive. I was disappointed we could not meet in person.”

Knoblock said over the phone that council members were seated about 15 feet apart from one another during the meeting.

“My thinking is we should have conducted our meeting,” Knoblock said. “Masks are not a law. It’s not a crime not to wear a mask. It’s a health suggestion. Anyone that felt uncomfortable could have left the meeting and entered it by Zoom. To cancel the meeting, send staff and everyone home to Zoom was probably a major disruption and probably unnecessary.”

The former state senator said he and wife Trina are feeling fine and isolating at home after learning Tuesday they’d both been infected, two weeks before the March 9 special election.

Councilman Chris Duncan also weighed in this week over the phone.

“Laura expressed that she was not told or there was no official notice that masks were going to be required,” Duncan said. “I have no reason to dispute that. That was her explanation and beyond that I’m not going to comment because I think very highly of Laura and I think she can be an asset to council. I hope that we are able to resolve these types of things in the future, not at a council meeting but amongst ourselves.”

However, Duncan said that city staff came to the council meeting under the expectation that everyone was going to be wearing a mask.

“I don’t want to have to wear a mask either, I don’t think anybody does,” Duncan said. “But we have to wear masks because it’s not just our own safety we need to be concerned about, it’s everyone’s safety and comfort.

“Once it was clear that not everyone was going to wear a mask, the only option really was to go back to the Zooming in from home.”

Ferguson has regularly butted heads with the city over transparency issues. The conflict came to a head in November, when the council voted to censure her for releasing city records to the public. Ferguson is a former public information officer for the city.

In December, Ferguson said she was considering suing the city because of the censure.

Ferguson said this week that the lawsuit is already prepared, and she will file it if the city doesn’t overturn the censure and pay her attorneys fees.

“Yet I’ve been trying to avoid suing my city because I’m a taxpayer advocate, and I don’t want to have to sue my city,” Ferguson said. “But I may have to, to deal with this because it was illegal on all fronts. We don’t have a censure law, no ordinance, no code of conduct, no ethics policy, nothing.”

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