After hearing nearly two dozen residents plead with Councilmember Brett Watson to resign in the wake of a scathing investigative report that he abused his power and harassed a city employee, the Arcata City Council passed a series of measures May 17 aimed at protecting city staff, while limiting Watson's access to City Hall.
Watson, meanwhile, struck a defiant tone, stating there is "absolutely zero chance" he will resign from office while arguing that he is innocent of the allegations against him and himself a victim of harassment at the hands of city staff.
With Watson on a figurative island, the council passed a series of motions 3-1, with Watson dissenting, to direct staff to pursue a workplace violence restraining order against him, to strip Watson of committee and other council member assignments, to take the steps necessary — including changing key codes — to restrict all council members' access to city hall and to direct Watson cease communications with city staff outside council meetings, to refrain from any physical contact with them and to refrain from any personal correspondences.
The council briefly discussed bringing back an agenda item to censure — or formally rebuke Watson — at a future meeting, but staff explained such a process would give the council member an opportunity to defend himself, prompting Councilmember Meredith Matthews to say she didn't want to "give this any more oxygen," a notion Mayor Stacy Atkins-Salazar and Vice-mayor Sarah Schaefer seemed to support.
The council's actions come on the heels of a third-party investigative report compiled by Kramer Workplace Investigations, which was called in to investigate allegations that Watson had engaged in a prolonged pattern of sexual harassment and using his position of authority to make undue demands of a staff members' time and attention. The 28-page report, which deemed the allegations "undisputed" and is corroborated by hundreds of pages of supporting text messages and emails between Watson and the employee, sustained findings that Watson engaged in "unprofessional and inappropriate conduct," and "abuse of his power as a city councilmember" over the course of more than two years. (Read more about the report and its findings here.)
The investigative report detailed how Watson suffered from mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, while navigating marital problems and the death of his father. The text messages in the document show he increasingly came to depend on the city employee, texting after hours, on weekends and while she was on vacation, and sharing intimate details of his life, from his feelings about his wife and the depths of his depression to changes in medication he was taking. Repeatedly, he asserted she was critical to his mental health and ability to function as a council member, according to the report, which also notes Watson made a custom of demanding long hugs from her.
Those who addressed the council on the issue during public comment were unequivocal in stating Watson should resign, with some referencing a statement Watson issued last night asserting that he has never harassed anyone, that his relationship with the employee was consensual, arguing she "enjoyed" spending time with him, "looked forward to it," "encouraged it" and even baked him cookies.
Resident Jessica Silva (who is also a Journal contributor) said she wanted to come to give Watson a piece of her mind but has come to believe he can't hear any of us. Instead, she discussed the power dynamic at play between a city employee and one of her five bosses on the council. "Implied consent from baked cookies" is not a thing, Silva said, and "there is no one-size-fits-all response to harassment."
"Compliance within an imbalanced power dynamic is not consent," Silva said.
A group of four city department directors read the council a joint letter, pledging support for the city's anti-harassment policy, urging the council to "send a strong message" and do what it can to protect employees from harassment. At the conclusion of their comment, Watson charged that one of the directors had faced a harassment complaint "not that long ago," thanking him for speaking.
Former Councilmember Sofia Pereira said she read the entire report and 500-plus pages of supporting materials, saying harassment is really about one person exercising power and control over another. And Pereira said the report shows Watson abused his power in more ways than one, pointing to the report detailing allegations that he threatened the employee's job, disregarded state laws designed to protect government transparency and public trust, and bragged about his ability to manipulate the council to vote how he wanted.
But Pereira said she realized the council doesn't have any mechanism for removing Watson from office. Though she urged the council to "use whatever tools" it had to ensure a safe workplace, she also warned of "the very real possibility that he doesn't have the humility to resign" and the city would instead have to wait until he's up for re-election in November to purge him from office.
Another former councilmember, Elizabeth Conner, called Watson's attitude toward democracy and his role on the council "horrendous" and "terrible," saying the investigative report is so convincing that there's no additional evidence that could be presented to change her mind that Watson is unfit for office.
The chorus of calls for Watson's resignation continued with Aristea Saulsbury reading a letter signed by more than 50 local women.
"Most of us have known a 'Brett Watson' in our lives — a man who took liberties while passing the blame on to the victims of his harassment," Saulsbury read. "Most of us have experienced or witnessed the victim of harassment being left to defend themselves, only supported by whisper networks. We are done accepting men like you that treat this behavior as the norm. ... You must resign."
When public comment came to a close and the discussion returned to the council dais, Watson took center stage. He aggressively questioned Tom O'Connell, a labor attorney representing the city through its insurance carrier, before repeating his claims that his relationship with the city employee was 100 percent consensual and alleging that witnesses had lied to investigators, while pointing out minor errors in the report.
"Just to make it clear," he said, "there's absolutely zero chance I'm going to resign."
Watson alleged the investigation also violated city policy, failing to notify him of the allegations against him, while claiming the city also failed to investigate his claims that he had been the victim of harassment. He then picked select text messages from the hundreds of pages included in the investigative report that included the employee saying something nice about him, or answering a compliment of his with one of her own, pointing to them as though they were evidence harassment could not have occurred.
Some of the exchanges Watson pointed to, however, also evidence a relationship that clearly crossed the bounds of that of employer and employee. In one he pointed to, he noted he told the employee as she was leaving on a vacation that he was "miss [her] so much" and was "going to be depressed" in her absence. In another, he texted, "You mean so much to me." He also said there were "many" examples of the employee giving him marital advice.
Watson closed his remarks reiterating that he has no intention of resigning his post but said "if the staff member wants to take responsibility for her role in the relationship," he "would consider it."
"I've gone through an intensive rehabilitation and I'm in a very strong place and want to serve my community," he said, referencing a 30-day in-patient program he attended late last year.
When Watson finished and the balance of the council picked up the discussion, they made clear their desire to move quickly and then get on to other city business, saying the ongoing discussion could be harmful to victims in the immediate case and victims of abuse and harassment more generally. The council then moved quickly through the series of votes to strip Watson of committee assignments, limit his access to staff and pursue a restraining order against him, with the embattled council member chiming in periodically and repeatedly casting the sole dissenting vote on the motions.
After the council's vote, City Attorney Nancy Diamond was asked to present briefly on the process the public would have to initiate to recall Watson from office. She explained proponents would have to collect signatures equaling 12 percent of voters who cast a ballot in the last general election, which would then be verified by the Humboldt County Elections Office and, if sufficient, the matter would be called for a special election. But the process spans some months, she said.
"It won't happen in time for the November ballot," Diamond said.
With that, the council moved to adjourn.
"We will try to do our best to move forward," Atkins-Salazar said.