The mood was tense during a more than four-and-a-half-hour-long Arcata City Council meeting on Wednesday night, during which the council discussed many pressing issues – including adopting the annual budget, placing the Earth Flag initiative on the November ballot, considering amendments to the City’s vacation rental ordinance and discussing updating the general plan – each conversation peppered with scathing remarks, accusations and emotional outbursts from Councilmember Brett Watson.
After slogging through the consent calendar — Watson requested almost every item be pulled for discussion — the council discussed the City’s Short Stay Vacation Rental Ordinance, which caps the number of vacation rentals in Arcata at 100 and places some additional requirements on their operation. The purpose of the discussion was to hear updates from city staff on how the ordinance has been working, and if there were any changes that need to be made.
The 100-unit cap exempts owner-occupied properties (meaning the owner either lives in the building or on the same lot as their vacation rental) and, concerned by the lack of affordable housing in Arcata, some councilmembers wondered if the cap should be lowered or the exemption removed. Councilmember Watson made a motion to remove all exemptions and lower the cap to 75. But the motion died for lack of a second. Ultimately, the council directed staff to conduct more public engagement and research and to bring the item back to another meeting.
The item had been placed on the agenda by Councilmember Meredith Matthews, who was not yet on the council when the ordinance was initially adopted, and Matthews thanked the staff and council for taking the time to bring her up to speed on some of the details. This prompted one of the first cynical remarks from Watson.
“The mayor’s not responding to my emails or placing any of my items on the agenda,” Watson said. “So I’m really disappointed about that.”
“I’ve been advised by counsel not to respond to you outside of council chambers,” Mayor Atkins-Salazar responded. “So that’s how we’re going to play it.”
Watson has been prohibited from having contact with other council members and city staff outside of meetings, since he has been under investigation for harassment of a female city employee. Although many community members have called for Watson to resign, he has refused, has not accepted any responsibility or shown any remorse for the incident, and has continuously argued that the city staff is conspiring against him.
During Wednesday’s meeting, Watson again took the opportunity to criticize city staff, especially Community Development Director David Loya, who Watson said has been deceiving the council in respect to the development of the city’s controversial Gateway Area Plan. During a discussion on the engagement process for the General Plan Update (the Gateway Area Plan is included in the housing element of the general plan) tension grew, as Watson began listing his issues with Loya. Mostly citing a report from arcata1.com, Watson said Loya has been unwilling to share information requested by the Planning Commission and that he provides contradicting information.
“I watched the May 24 meeting with the Planning Commission and, you know, it really seemed like a reasonable person would come to the conclusion that [Loya] would ignore Planning Commission requests for certain agenda items and put your own agenda items on there instead,” Watson said.
At this point, Vice Mayor Sarah Schaefer got frustrated. “I really don’t think this is relevant to the item that we’re discussing,” she interjected. “I really think that you’re just berating staff.”
“You need to stop interrupting me, Sarah, and turn your microphone off … ,” Watson responded. “It is my First Amendment right to say what I want to say.”
“Okay. Well, maybe try saying it with a little bit more decorum,” Schaefer said.
“This is completely inappropriate,” Matthews added. (Mayor Atkins-Salazar had left the chambers at this point, having recused herself from a conversation related to the Gateway Area Plan due to a Fair Political Practices Commission ruling.)
“It’s sickening to see this culture of lies and deception cultivated by leadership continue to thrive at City Hall,” Watson continued. “It’s been like this for years and it needs to stop. We need to clean up City Hall and give the people the transparent government they deserve.”
Matthews then attempted to make a motion to move on to other business, to which Watson laughed and said “you won’t have the votes.”
Here’s video of the meeting queued up to that exchange:
When the bickering finally came to an end, Mayor Atkins-Salazar returned to the chambers and the council moved on, receiving a report on the City’s budget.
But Watson had more bones to pick with City staff, saying that he has been requesting budget information for months that has not been provided to him. City Attorney Nancy Diamond attempted to address Watson’s concerns and it quickly dissolved into another argument.
“Your communications to city staff are through your attorney,” Diamond said.
“That wasn’t the case several months ago though, so you haven’t answered my question,” Watson said. “It’s okay, you can sit down now, Nancy,” he added condescendingly.
“No,” Diamond replied. “You don’t tell me what to do. The whole council tells me what to do.”
There were even more accusations from Watson and uncomfortable moments during the meeting – too many, really, to include in one post. At one point, for example, Watson accused City Manager Karen Diemer of “hiding money in the budget.”
But despite the tension, the council did make some decisions – adopting the 2022/23 budget and placing an initiative that directs the City of Arcata to hang the Earth Flag at the top of all city-owned flagpoles on the November ballot. (Read more about it here.)
The council had the choice to either adopt the Earth flag initiative, or place it on the ballot. Because the council had heard some pushback on the issue, mainly from local veterans who feel that hanging any flag above the U.S. flag is disrespectful, the council opted to go with the second option, and let Arcata’s voters decide.
The council opted not to draft an argument against the measure, but anyone who would like to can submit an argument to the city clerk by July 22. The deadline to submit rebuttal arguments is Aug 2.
Of course, Watson could not resist one more opportunity to voice his distrust of city staff, and during final communications, he requested that an item be placed on the next agenda.
“I just want to report that, you know, over the last few months I’ve gathered a lot of evidence of lies and deception by the staff and the city attorney and I think it’s important for the council to discuss that,” Watson said. “So I’d like to agendize that.”
“I’m not going to put that on the agenda,” Atkins-Salazar said.