In a blistering social media post made just before the April 23 Black Diamond Council meeting, Councilwoman Kristiana de Leon called for rescinding the appointments of Councilmen Chris Wisnoski and Patrick Nelson.
“It has come to my attention that two appointed council members… decided to protest in Olympia on Sunday, April 19, directly defying common-sense ‘Stay Home, Stay Healthy’ orders,” she wrote on her professional Facebook page. “Patrick Nelson and Chris Wisnoski are not fit to serve or represent our community and should no longer claim to be doing so as members of the Black Diamond City Council.”
According to the Seattle Times, more than 2,000 people gathered at the state Capitol to protest Gov. Jay Inslee’s March 23 stay-at-home orders, which were originally planned to be lifted in early April, but have been extended to May 4 in order to slow the rate of infection and keep healthcare systems from overloading.
The state Department of Health noted on April 14 that social distancing is helping “flatten the curve,” but that these efforts must continue in order to prevent another virus spike.
“The measure of how many new infections a single COVID-19 infection will produce has now dropped to around one in King County,” the DOH wrote. “The distancing efforts, including Governor Jay Inslee’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy order, must remain in place to prevent a rebound in the number of cases and deaths.”
De Leon made it clear in her statement that she believed Wisnoski and Nelson’s decision was not just unwise, but could have actively harmed the community they serve.
“[Their] decision to protest… by congregating in large gathering and by flagrantly defying CDC guidelines on social distancing, was an act of violence against untold numbers of people in and around Black Diamond, and indeed in Washington State,” she said, reading her whole Facebook statement into the meeting record. “Their actions have ultimately endangered our lives, and their actions have emboldened others to participate in other activities that continue to undo our hard work.”
Wisnoski and Nelson responded to different allegations in de Leon’s statement.
“People have the right to say what they want. I was well within my First Amendment rights, and I didn’t go as a representative of the city,” Wisnoski said. “I followed precautions while I was there. I wore a mask and I tried to keep my distance as much as possible.
“We have a lot of people that live paycheck to paycheck who are suffering right now and they need to get back to work, and our state still doesn’t have a plan, and that’s disappointing, because we should have a plan by now,” he continued. “I went there to listen to what the plan would be to get us open. The plan is to take precautions and open slowly, but that’s more of a plan than what we’ve heard from the governor so far.”
Inslee announced with the governors of Oregon and California on April 13 that the three states would work in close coordination to safely reopen their economies, though a specific plan was not published. On April 21, Inslee further announced that wide-scale testing to the tune of 20,000 to 30,000 test a day would determine how quickly the economy could reopen. However, the state can only conduct around 4,000 tests daily at this time due to a shortage in supplies, the governor added.
Nelson responded to a very specific allegation de Leon made: “I have seen the pictures and videos showing you were marching and standing next to Neo-Nazi and Confederate Flag-Wearing individuals,” she wrote. “Perhaps you both will say that you do not agree with the ideology of these kinds of groups, but when you directly and literally stand with Proud Boys, Neo Nazis, and Confederate Flag Wavers and similar groups in solidarity, it leaves us no other conclusion that your actions speak louder than your words at the dais.”
Photos and videos of the protest confirm that at least one individual was waving a Confederate flag, and another carrying a flag of the controversial Three Percenter grassroots organization, but they were clearly outnumbered by those bearing the American stars and stripes.
Another photo circulating on social media apparently shows Nelson standing besides an individual bearing a flag that draws clear comparisons to the Nazi Germany flag, though its exact meaning is unclear. However, there’s no evidence connecting Nelson and the individual except for being at the same place at the same time.
“I wasn’t with [any] Neo-Nazis or anything like that. This has been blown way out of proportion… There was a big group of pastors I was there with. That picture is not being talked about,” Nelson said. “I think that [de Leon’s] last comment… speaks volumes, and I think that my involvement in the city for the past 15, 16 years speaks for itself. I will still fight with the city, do everything I can with this city. I’m still going to be working with local businesses, I’m still working with first responders, I’m not going to allow this to waver me.”
De Leon’s call for Wisnoski and Nelson’s removal sparked different reactions from other council members.
“As I watched the coverage of this rally on the news and from Councilmember Nelson’s home video that he posted on his Facebook page, I was disgusted to see what looked like no precaution was taking place,” Councilwoman Tamie Deady read from a prepared statement. “I just don’t understand how two council members can then go out and do the opposite of what their city is asking its citizens and staff to adhere to. I’m not sure if council can remove the two appointed members from their position, and when council is back in session, a discussion will need to be had.”
“While every citizen has the right to exercise their freedom on speech and his right to assemble, I’m disappointed that these council members decided to ignore the governor’s order implemented to protect our healthcare system from being overwhelmed, as it has been in other areas of the country and around the world,” Councilwoman Erin Stout said, also reading from a prepared statement. “Some have called for Councilmembers Nelson and Wisnoski to be removed from the council or for them to resign their seats. I do not think that is necessary, but I hope they will apologize to Mayor Benson for disrespect and for affirmation of the governor’s stay at home proclamation, and to the community for participating in potential spread of this disease. I expect Black Diamond City Council to move forward with the work of the city in the best residents of its residents.”
“Them attending an event like that was disrespectful to the city’s stated position. It does contradict the document they signed, as well as I signed. But I also believe in the First Amendment rights, and I don’t believe that as a city council, we would have any legal basis to force their removal from the city council,” Councilmember Steven Paige said, referring to a letter, signed by the entire city council and published by the Courier-Herald on April 1, that stated in part that “Your city council is here for you during this time of ‘Stay Home and Stay Safe,’ COVID-19 avoidance.”
However, Wisnoski and Nelson weren’t the only ones to be criticized by Paige.
“I don’t think that some of the allegations that Councilmember de Leon associated to them is fair, and while I would, I guess, [to] use your term, rebuke them or ask them to consider the implications of what they did and what that means for the city’s reputation, I would also say your comments… were in poor taste and stepped over the line,” he continued. “I’m not going to get into any more than that, other than to say we’ve got city business to conduct, and let’s focus on conducting the city business, and not get involved in tarnishing other people for a difference in political opinions.”
Councilwoman Melissa Oglesbee and Mayor Carol Benson did not speak on the issue. No councilmembers replied to a request for any additional comments.