The day before the Jenks city council was scheduled to take up a vote on whether to adopt a mask mandate, Bond Payne, the governor’s chief of staff, left a voicemail for Jenks Mayor Robert Lee.
“I understand you guys are voting on a mask mandate tomorrow and just wanted to reach out and offer some support for what you’re doing,” said Bond, according to a recording of the Nov. 9 voicemail he left the mayor, which was shared with The Frontier.
Lee replayed the message multiple times, stunned by what he heard.
“I couldn’t believe my ears, I listened to it five times,” Lee said. “I called him back and asked if he could be more public about this because people are not going to believe me when I tell them about this.”
Payne’s response was that the governor, who has urged Oklahomans to wear masks but has rejected calls for a statewide mandate, has been as public as he’s going to be, according to Lee.
On Thursday, when asked about his office reaching out to city leaders, Gov. Kevin Stitt said his chief of staff had contacted multiple cities to express support for their right to take up a vote, not necessarily to support the proposed ordinance.
“We just encourage them, it’s their decision and we are going to support them either way,” Stitt said.
But Lee said when he called Payne back he was told the governor is in support of the ordinance.
“(Payne) said this is something we have been open about and if people don’t believe this then it is kind of the media’s fault,” said Lee, recalling his phone call with Payne.
“I hang on every word of Stitt’s press conferences and I have never heard him say he supports any kind of mask mandate. He says I’m not going to issue a mask mandate because I believe in individual liberty, but does that mean a mayor who does it doesn’t believe in individual liberty?”
Lee tried to relay the governor’s support at the city council meeting before the mask mandate vote.
“Even Gov. Stitt’s office says this is a good idea if Jenks does this,” Lee told the council.
Vice Mayor Donna Ogez was skeptical of Lee’s claim.
“If the governor is in agreement with it why has this not been a statewide mandate?” asked Ogez, who voted against the proposal. “It’s just interesting to me they are sending you some kind of notification in saying they back us in doing this … so why isn’t the state mandated (to wear a mask)?”
The Jenks council voted four to three in favor of a mask mandate.
Charlie Hannema, the governor’s spokesperson, said calls made to local officials were to make sure they knew Stitt supported them in whatever decision they made.
“The intent of the conversations was not to encourage one decision or another but rather to ensure local leaders knew our office would stand by their local decision,” Hannema said.
The governor’s office also reached out to officials in Broken Arrow and Ardmore before their own votes on mask mandates, according to sources.
Lee said Stitt’s message on masks has been confusing, especially following a Sept. 23 visit the governor made to Jenks.
Prior to arriving at the Jenks police headquarters, Lee said a staff member handling advance logistics called and said Stitt did not want anyone wearing a mask, according to Lee and four other individuals with knowledge of the situation.
“The police (department) was specifically told not to wear any masks, the governor’s aide said the governor doesn’t want any masks worn,” said one city official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the governor’s visit.
Lee said he was especially frustrated because photos of a maskless Stitt and the Jenks police chief received criticism on Facebook, “when our police department is a big proponent of wearing masks and does a good job with it.”
Hannema said staff who do advance work for Stitt “very strongly disputed” the claim anyone in Jenks was asked not to wear a mask and that the governor follows whatever local procedures are in place concerning masks.
Masks have become a political flashpoint and Stitt is asked about a statewide mandate at nearly every news conference.
Stitt has consistently rejected a statewide mandate, claiming it doesn’t make sense in some parts of the state and he doubts his ability to enforce it.
But the governor has urged all Oklahomans to wear a mask.
“We’ve said 100 times wear your mask,” Stitt said this month at a news conference. “(We are) pleading with people to do the right thing.”
With COVID-19 cases increasing significantly in parts of the country, some Republican governors once opposed to mask mandates have changed course, including Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds.
Cases and hospitalizations are at an all-time high in Oklahoma, and more than 1,500 Oklahomans have died due to the virus.
Earlier this month, state Commissioner of Health Dr. Lance Frye said masks are critical to containing the spread of COVID-19 but he feared a mask mandate might have the opposite effect in Oklahoma.
“Do we have independent people in the state of Oklahoma that believe in their freedom so much that they will do something the opposite of what you tell them to do? My answer is absolutely we do have those people in Oklahoma,” Frye said.
Local mask mandates have been criticized by some conservative lawmakers and at least one member of the state Legislature has suggested a bill that would ban cities from enforcing mandates.
But Stitt recently said he supports the rights of cities to impose their own mandates and seemed to indicate he would not sign a potential bill that would prevent a city from taking that step.
“When a local community is voting on something I am going to support them. We believe in local control,” Stitt said earlier this month.
The odds of such a bill reaching the governor may be unlikely as House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols told The Frontier such a bill would not receive a hearing on the floor.
“I will not hear a bill on the House of Representatives floor, unless the Speaker tells me I have to, that would stop a city’s ability to have a mask mandate,” said Echols, R-Oklahoma City.