If Arcata City Councilmember Brett Watson cares about his city, he needs to resign. Immediately.
The third-party investigative report sustaining allegations that Watson engaged in the prolonged harassment of a city employee and abused his authority is damning. But even more damning are the hundreds of pages of emails and texts included with the report, which combine to paint a thorough picture of Watson as a man entirely unfit to hold public office. And perhaps most damning of all was Watson's conduct at Arcata's May 17 council meeting, at which he appeared defiant, remorseless and oblivious.
While there are myriad of issues at play here, four are paramount.
First, Arcata employees — like all employees and especially those who work in the public sector on our behalf — deserve a safe work space free of harassment. Full stop. They do not deserve to navigate their boss' temper tantrums and romantic overtures, nor fulfill their need for hugs. They should be able to leave work at work, and definitely should not be expected to spend countless hours on nights and weekends and vacations helping a boss through the emotional wreckage of their personal life. After roughly two years of Watson obliterating the boundaries between personal and professional life, the only way to make city hall a hospitable — and fully productive — work environment is for him not to be there.
Second, it's painfully clear some very real mental health issues are foundational to Watson's troublesome conduct. We are sympathetic to his battle with depression and anxiety, and truly hope he gets the help he needs to avoid further harm to the people around him and to achieve some sense of contentment. But public office is no place to work through such entrenched issues, as one needs to be on firm footing before taking on the problems of an entire community.
Third, Watson's conduct reveals a contempt for democracy, his role and his constituents. The report and supporting documents include instances of Watson trampling state open meeting laws, dismissing the will and input of his fellow councilmembers, and urging at least one city employee to "break the rules" and violate the trust of other councilmembers. Even if one ignores the very real, documented campaign of harassment, Watson's apparent contempt for democratic governance and thirst for power are disqualifying enough. This is not the conduct of a man who belongs in public office and his behavior at the council meeting showed equal disregard for his constituents.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, Watson's conduct at Tuesday's meeting showed him to be someone with a complete obliviousness or indifference to power dynamics; such a person simply cannot hold a position of power. Speaking in his own defense, Watson sought to discredit the employee he harassed and the investigation by insisting his prolonged relationship with her was consensual. In an effort to make his case, he told his fellow councilmembers the employee had made him cookies, and pointed to a dozen or so text messages the employee sent him, in which she says flattering things — "You'll be a great mentor," "You mean a lot to me, too," "Look forward to talking tomorrow." Watson was insistent that these moments proved the entirety of their relationship was consensual and mutual, unaffected by their respective positions. Of course, you can't look at any of these things in a vacuum.
For example, the employee's message telling Watson she looked forward to talking the next day comes amid an unsolicited text exchange initiated by her boss on a Sunday and is preceded by this:
"I'm doing OK. Thanks a lot for asking. I just still feel weird most of the time and it's hard for me not to worry about the same stuff I always worry about. I'm really trying to work on it though and get better. I realized Friday was 3 months since my dad died. I feel like such a big piece of me is missing without him. I think I'm doing OK though. I'm trying to be OK. I tried to relax a lot this weekend and I also got some errands done. Went for a short walk today, washed my car and worked a little bit. I'm looking forward to [our] walking tomorrow."
The employee responds asking where Watson would like to meet for the walk, then writes: "Hope you rest well tonight. 3 months is still very little time for real healing, your efforts will pay off — look forward to talking tomorrow."
Watson pointed to another text as "evidence" of the consensual nature of the relationship because the employee said he means a lot to her. But again, the context is vital to understanding the exchange.
At 6:53 p.m. on a Friday, Watson texts, apparently spiraling: "I'm really sad but I appreciate you so much. I'm sorry it's taking so long for me to get better. I'm sorry for all the time I take. I'm sorry for everything. I haven't cried in a long time. You mean so much to me."
The employee responds that "crying is very healthy," and offers some support as Watson grieves the death of his father, before telling him: "You mean a lot to me as well."
Abusive relationships are about power and control. In this case, Watson exercised a professional power over the employee as her boss — at times responding to her attempts to set boundaries by threatening to evaluate her performance in closed session or talk to other council members about her job. But he also exercises an emotional power and control, repeatedly crossing the bounds of a professional employee-employer relationship to share the intimate details of his mental health, his fragility, his struggles, and even his medications. Perhaps more troubling here, repeatedly ties the state of his mental health to their relationship, saying he's been able to get through hard times because of her, that his depression and anxiety have improved because of her, that he feels OK when he is with her, that those are the only times he feels OK. What's implied is that she's responsible for him. Were she to no longer be constantly available to talk to him about personal issues, he wouldn't be OK, his depression and anxiety would get worse, he wouldn't be able to get through the next hard time. The cumulative impact of this power dynamic is an employee constantly receiving personal texts from her boss, worried that if she doesn't respond or tells him to stop it might not only anger her boss, but send him into a spiraling mental health episode.
It's unclear — and unimportant — to what degree Watson intended to be manipulative or was simply oblivious. But he seemed to offer a hint toward the end of the May 17 council meeting, when he reiterated that he has no plans to resign but said, "if the staff member wants to take responsibility for her role in the relationship," he "would consider it."
And there it was, a man stripped of all his power in a relationship trying desperately to manipulate the situation to pull some back. In essence, Watson was again dumping responsibility for his actions on the employee, telling her if she admitted some of this mess he created was her fault, too, he would bring this awful nightmare to a close by walking away. Maybe. Well, at least he would "consider" it while retaining the power to change his mind as he has before.
Brett Watson — both in the conduct thoroughly documented in the investigative report and that he displayed May 17 — has shown himself to be fully unfit for office. He needs to resign immediately.
Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the news editor at the Journal. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.