The public, fellow councilmembers and city staff unanimously called upon Arcata City Councilmember Brett Watson to do just one thing – resign – during a remarkable two-hour special meeting last night.
But he would not resign, and he says he won’t resign. He will stay on the council until his term ends at the end of this year. There will be an election in November, and if he chooses to run for reelection he will lose by an astounding margin.
“There’s absolutely zero chance I’m going to resign,” Watson said. “Just to be totally clear. Crystal clear.”
Watson would not allow himself to feel shame. He never expressed remorse for hurting the female staff member who he repeatedly described as his “best friend” or “big sister.” He denied that he had expressed romantic feelings for her, as she had testified to the city’s investigator and which other witnesses confirmed, but the record at least shows unambiguously that he made extensive, greedy demands on her time; that he was possessive of her and jealous of her other relationships with other people; and that he crossed innumerable professional boundaries in his communications with her.
On the contrary, Watson said: “If the staff member involved wants to take responsibility for her role in the relationship, I’ll consider it.”
No one who spoke last night in the council chambers or via Zoom spoke in support of Watson. He was all alone. Some speakers expressed some sympathy for his plight – for his past drug problem, for his apparent psychiatric collapse following the death of his father a couple of years ago – but they tried to appeal to him, with sympathy, to stand down.
“I would like to appeal to you personally, because I sympathize with the details I have heard,” said Timothy Overturf, owner of the Arcata Theatre Lounge. “You lost a family member. I lost my brother to suicide last year. You have ADHD, as you’ve said. I’ve been diagnosed as well. And when I’m put in situations that I cannot handle and am not effective, I try to give that responsibility to other people. With everything that’s transpired, I think you’re ineffective to effect the will of the residents of Arcata, and you have a responsibility to resign.”
But that tack had no effect, and neither did the more direct attempts to force Watson to acknowledge the pain he has caused. Woman after woman, many of them former colleagues, tried.
“After I read your defense yesterday, as a victim of sexualized violence, I was totally retriggered and felt reabused, and I don’t want to hear any more of it from you,” said former councilmember Elizabeth Conner. “And nor do the other women in this town who had that reaction. I’m not the only one.”
Sofia Pereira, who sat on the council with Watson for a time, said that she felt she had to be present in solidarity with city staff and the remainder of the city council, who she said are “navigating a sickening situation.”
“What I read in this report … I think it really reinforces that [sexual harassment] is fundamentally about power and control over another,” she said. “And this report reveals a pattern of abusing power, from sexual harassment — including threatening this employee’s job, repeatedly — to flaunting how the Brown Act does not apply to him.”
Pereira urged the rest of the council to take whatever action it could to limit the harm another six months of Watson on the council would cause, not least because this issue takes so much away from the city’s normal business.
“We also must consider the very real possibility that he doesn’t have the humility to resign, and that he’s up on this dais until his term ends in December,” she said. “It takes incredible courage and reflection to acknowledge one’s actions and seek to repair harm that has been done. And I’m not so sure we’ll see that here, based on his response so far, which means that the suffering could continue — for all of you, and for this community.”
In addition to the numerous speakers who spoke in much the same vein, probing and prodding in whatever fashion they could think of to convince Watson to resign, a number of city staff members spoke, saying they wholeheartedly approved of the goal of a harassment-free workplace. David Loya, the city’s director of community development, read a letter jointly composed and signed by all the city’s department heads to that effect.
But since Watson is an elected official, normal disciplinary procedures — such as termination — cannot be followed in this case. It also makes it all but impossible to cut his access to the microphone. When public testimony was done, Mayor Stacy Atkins-Salazer and councilmembers Meredith Mathews and Sarah Schaefer each read short statements lamenting how Watson’s conduct has come to swallow up so much city business in the last several months, and once again urging Watson to resign.
At that point, Watson read from a prepared statement for almost half an hour. He charged, once again, that the female staff member he allegedly harassed once baked him cookies and sent him photos from her vacation. He said that their relationship was “100 percent consensual.” He said, again, that the city’s investigator “refused” to interview him, despite the fact that the interviewer reached out several times to the series of three different attorneys who each briefly represented Watson over a period of a couple of months. Watson sent the entire statement to us after the meeting. You can read it here, if you like.
At the end of the meeting, the three other members of the council, in a series of motions, voted to strip Watson of all his committee assignments, to seek a restraining order against him from the courts, to restrict his use of city staff time and prohibit physical contact with staff members, and to limit his access to City Hall. Watson voted against them each time.
The council decided not to pursue censuring Watson, as it would have no tangible effect and would take up yet more city time.
It’s not clear what Watson hopes to accomplish by staying on the council, unless he takes it as some sort of personal vindication. He has said he wants to continue to serve the city, but it is very clear that the city does not want that service — not the council, not the staff, not the public.
It’s not clear what the next couple of months are going to be like in the city, but it can’t be going anywhere well for Watson or for anyone who retains any concern for him personally. It’s not hard to think of political figures in the recent past who seem to have profited by simply denying everything, by suppressing the human responsibility to apologize and atone. But Arcata is a small town, and there are only so many bridges to burn.