Lane County looks back at 2021’s challenges

Lane County Commissioner Joe Berney

On Monday, Lane County Commissioner Joe Berney delivered the 2022 State of the County address as the board chair for 2021. The presentation was decidedly upbeat considering the difficult times faced by residents of Lane County since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and numerous large-scale wildfires which swept the state in 2020. 

The speech was delivered to an empty room, but broadcast live, with attending commissioners masked during the presentation. 

The State of the County presentation included taped remarks from senior county staff and a review of the services provided to county residents during this time of challenge to individuals and businesses.

Berney began the meeting by thanking the commissioners who attended. He explained that the decision to hold the meeting virtually was well considered and only made after data indicated a significant surge in COVID infections is under way.

“We were looking forward to celebrating together today. In person. We literally waited until the last possible moment to look at the data, which tells us another variant of this virus has hit hard. Like everyone else, we struggled through disappointment to try to do the right thing,” Berney said. “So as much as we want and planned to be together, virtual is the only responsible path to take, as we are the county’s public health agency. Under these circumstances, my heartfelt appreciation to this year’s chair Commissioner (Pat) Farr, Vice-Chair (Laurie) Trieger and Commissioner (Heather) Buch for joining me today in paying our respect to all County residents.”

West Lane County Commissioner Jay Bozievich was not in attendance at the State of the County report, citing his opinion, in an open letter to his fellow commissioners on social media platforms, that the event should be held virtually or open to the public, and not as a hybrid of the two meeting formats.

“I will not be attendance for the State of the County today. I wanted to explain why. On Jan. 3, I was notified that they wanted the board to attend and sit at the dais in Harris Hall and be required to where (sic) KN-95 or 3-ply surgical masks the entire time AND that there would be no public present,” Bozievich wrote. “Only a select few staff and invited members of the press would be present. I feel this violates the spirit of Oregon public meeting law and will not participate just to be a prop to what will look like a public meeting when our board has refused to return to in-person meeting or it should be virtual.”

Berney made no further mention of the absence. Instead, he turned to the unexpected nature of the dual emergencies confronting Lane County residents, fires and a pandemic, and the responses of county employees to these emergencies on all levels.

“These have been strange, difficult, exhausting and trying times. For all of us. We have seen the best in us, selfless acts of compassion by countless people and groups helping our families, friends and neighbors,” he said.

Berney spoke with appreciation for the efforts of first responders and health care workers, social workers and of those county employees who deal with juvenile offenders and the disadvantaged among us. 

Continuing to support those activities and providing guidance for educators and retail employees was difficult, according to Berney, and county employees made adjustments and modifications to normal practices to deal with a myriad of issues. 

He highlighted the fact that these were unplanned situations and the manner in which county employees responded was often positive and inspirational. The past year required developing and implementing new plans to continue to provide vital services to county residents.

“I have borne witness to our county team doing just that — working with coalitions and individuals putting actions and healing over words and divisiveness,” Berney said. “And now, we’re able to move from being overwhelmed and reacting to crises to getting ahead of them, preventing or mitigating them and controlling our destiny.”

His presentation thanked not only front-line health care workers, county workers in clinics and treatment centers and those working or volunteering in clinics, pharmacies, behavioral centers and hospitals in Lane County, he also thanked those who helped Lane County’s COVID-19 Incident Command deliver over 200,000 vaccinations. 

Berney also spoke to the national political dialogue and how that dynamic impacted local circumstances. He specifically referred to the threat to American democratic principles which took place last January in Washington, D.C.

“Literally the day after I was elected chair, one year ago on last Jan. 6, the peaceful transition of power at our nation’s Capital, historically the hallmark of our democracy, did not occur. The year that followed demonstrated the fragility of this great experiment of the people’s self-rule that we call democracy,” Berney stated. “We have seen opportunists from different political extremes use the anxiousness all of us have felt to fuel their own, often divisive, agendas. Meanwhile we’ve had children to raise, businesses to run and keep afloat, the vulnerable among us to support, families to care for and life to resume. This has required a special combination of individual responsibility and organizational transformation supported with direct services from our county government.”

The closing elements of the 34-minute presentation were built on the overall tone of growth and resilience.

“So, let’s all take heart and re-commit to each other, united not divided, focusing on mutual respect, responsibility and results, not ideology or rhetoric. In the words of Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa and Nobel Peace Prize winner: ‘Our human compassion binds us the one to the other — not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learned how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.’

“As we advance from crisis into opportunity, let us move with the will to succeed, with tolerance and with goodwill.”

The complete “State of the County” speech can be seen at lanecounty.org or on Youtube.

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