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Mayoral Misconduct? 

Arcata weighs investigation options as councilmember heads to rehab

The city of Arcata is currently weighing whether and how it investigates allegations against Councilmember Brett Watson, at least some of which were the subject of a closed session meeting earlier this month to discuss the city's potential exposure to litigation and later prompted a very public rebuke from his colleagues on the dais.

"Information will be released as appropriate considering personal and privacy concerns," City Manager Karen Diemer writes in an email to the Journal. She said no formal complaints or claims have been filed against Watson or the city related to the matter.

Meanwhile, Watson, who was arrested in August for driving under the influence, is out as mayor but — as of Oct. 26 — still sits on the council. After his city council colleagues voted unanimously Oct. 20 that they have no confidence in his ability to serve on the council and to replace him as mayor, Watson issued a statement saying that he was entering "a 30-day residential rehabilitation program to focus on depression and personal issues."

"My goal is to get myself better before making any decisions on how I can continue to best serve my community," Watson's statement reads. "I'm very grateful for the outpouring of support I've received and I'll inform the community of my decision as soon as possible."

That statement — which Watson sent on city letterhead from his private email without informing the council or city staff, according to Diemer — culminated a week of confusion about Watson's status and speculation about what he might have done after his fellow councilmembers made it clear that they no longer believed he is fit to serve and publicly accused him of wrongdoing.

Just two days earlier, now Mayor Stacy Atkins-Salazar was selected to replace him during a special session called before the regular council meeting. Watson was absent due to what she described as "personal reasons."

Vice Mayor Emily Goldstein, who was also appointed to her position at the meeting, then read a somewhat lengthy but vague statement before moving that the council cast a no-confidence vote, which — she noted — Watson had been informed would take place.

"We have no legal ability to remove him from the city council. However, I believe we owe it to the people of Arcata to make it clear — we do not align ourselves with the actions of Councilmember Watson," Goldstein read at the Oct. 20 meeting. "This last week, information came to light regarding alleged behaviors of Councilmember Watson that negatively affected the city and some of its staff members.

"It is our responsibility now, as the council, to protect the well-being of our employees and the ability of our city to run smoothly," she continued. "While to some of you it may seem unfair that we are moving forward with this vote of no confidence when Councilmember Watson is not present, we did feel it was important to be transparent with the residents of Arcata and share that this decision of leadership rotation and this proposed vote were made based on a body of information, although some of this cannot be shared publicly at this time. I have previously conveyed my thoughts to Councilmember Watson and he has been made aware that this vote would move forward at this evening's council meeting. I do not take this decision lightly. I have shared all I can at this time and the city will address the alleged actions in a confidential manner."

The four council members then cast their unanimous vote.

"I would just like to say Vice Mayor Goldstein summed up the situation quite well and we've been elected to help run and guide the city of Arcata and that's what we want to do and are trying to do, and so it's important that we move forward," Atkins-Salazar said. "To reiterate, this was not taken lightly."

Watson was arrested in August on suspicion of driving under the influence and cocaine possession and a few days later released a statement saying he was having a difficult time dealing with the anniversary of his father's suicide.

The next month, the Mad River Union reported, Watson pleaded guilty and was placed in diversion programs that included counseling sessions. But all of that took place well before the timeline that Goldstein outlined in her admonishment.

And, so far, not much more has come to light. But at least some of the issue seems to tie back to the Oct. 13 closed session — at which Watson was present — to discuss his alleged conduct and the city's potential exposure to litigation.

Muddling the situation further, however, is that the closed session took place two days after Diemer says Watson informed her and the city attorney that he "had informally stepped down as mayor as he considered his options." Diemer says she isn't sure which, if any, councilmembers Watson had informed at the time but says she and the city attorney were verbally told "as of Oct. 11."

But when Watson — who was first appointed to fill an open seat on the council in 2017 before being elected to serve in the next election — didn't follow up with a formal announcement of his decision to step down as mayor for a week as the next council meeting drew near, Diemer says the Oct. 20 special session was placed on the agenda to replace him.

"Ultimately, he did not share his final intent prior the Tuesday deadline to send out the special meeting agenda, so it went out as it did," she wrote in an email to the Journal.

Arcata Police Chief Brian Ahearn tells the Journal that his department is not conducting a criminal investigation into the allegations against Watson referenced at the Oct. 22 meeting and Diemer says the city is limited in what can be said at this time.

She did say that the council has not given or been asked to give Watson permission to be absent from meetings during his time in treatment.

Under state law, according to the Arcata City Council Protocol Manual, a council seat is considered vacated "if a councilmember is absent without permission from all regular city council meetings for 60 days consecutively from the last regular meeting he or she attended."

Councilmembers are also required to inform the city manager if they are going to be absent from the city for more than 24 hours and state how long they intend to be away.

Meanwhile, Atkins-Salazar, in comments to the Union before Watson's statement was released, offers a bit but not much more about the situation by saying that other people's privacy needed to be considered before releasing any more information.

"I was elected to serve the City of Arcata and that is and has been my top priority," Atkins-Salazar says in the Oct. 21 comments. "The actions taken last night were necessary for us to be able to move forward productively as a council, and they were not taken lightly. Vice Mayor Goldstein's statement adequately put forth the details of the situation we have been dealing with, so the public is informed as much as is possible and appropriate at this time. There are other people and their privacy to consider in this situation, therefore I will be treating the details of the matter confidentially. I was elected to serve Arcata and I would like to focus on doing just that."

The next regularly scheduled Arcata City Council meeting is Nov. 3.

Kimberly Wear (she/her) is the Journal's digital editor. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 323, or kim@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wear.

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Kimberly Wear

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Kimberly Wear is the assistant editor of the North Coast Journal.

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