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Watson claims community 'encouragement,' his emails say otherwise

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When embattled Arcata City Councilmember Brett Watson announced last month he would be seeking re-election in November, he cited "all of the encouragement from members of the community" he's received, but that "encouragement" is all but absent from the public record.

In the wake of Watson's announcement, the Journal submitted a California Public Records Act request for all emails he's received between early May, when a third-party investigation sustained allegations that he'd sexually harassed a city employee and used his position to make undue demands for the individual's time and attention over the course of more than two years, and his re-election announcement three months later. A review of the more than 700 emails released by the city found more than 30 calling for Watson to resign, with only four voicing support for the councilmember. One of those supportive emails came from someone Watson later reported to Arcata Police for espousing anti-Semitic, sexist rhetoric.

Public commenters at Arcata City Council meetings, meanwhile, have overwhelmingly called for Watson's resignation, with few, if any, voicing support. Even Watson's public Facebook page seems devoid of people supporting his re-election bid, and it seems noteworthy that he limited who could comment on his re-election announcement, presumably to mute any backlash.

In a statement sent in response to a Journal request for comment about the apparent divide between his campaign announcement and what exists in the public record, Watson conceded that "having critics is part of the job," before saying most of his support comes outside the public eye.

"I believe it's important to challenge the assumption that support for my campaign is defined by who has time to email their council member or attend a public meeting," he wrote. "The vast majority of my supporters contact me directly by phone, text and Facebook. Also, I regularly see them in person at places like the grocery store, the plaza and the post office."

While it's certainly possible there's a silent group of community members backing his bid to stay on the council, the emails released to the Journal tell an entirely different story.

On May 6, the Mad River Union was the first media outlet to publish a report detailing the findings of an investigation by Danville-based law firm Kramer Workplace Investigations, which came after the city council voted Oct. 20 to remove Watson as mayor and issued a no-confidence vote in his ability to continue to hold office, citing unspecified "alleged behaviors" that had come to light. The Kramer Workplace Investigations report that followed was damning, finding that it was "undisputed" that Watson engaged in "unprofessional and inappropriate conduct," and "abuse of his power as a city councilmember." Specifically, the report detailed how Watson fixated on a city employee, demanding more and more of her time and repeatedly crossing the bounds of a professional relationship, talking to her about his mental health and marriage problems, while at one point sharing that he had romantic feelings for her.

For his part, Watson has denied any inappropriate behavior, claiming the employee — his subordinate — welcomed the relationship, which included scores of after-hours texts and calls, discussions of his mental health state and long hugs that made the employee feel uncomfortable. He also charged that the report and its findings are the result of a staff conspiracy and deprived him of due process.

Almost immediately after news of the investigation's findings became public, constituents began emailing, calling for Watson to step down.

"Upon reading the report in the Mad River Union regarding Councilman Brett Watson, I think it is clear he needs to resign to maintain the integrity for the office and to acknowledge the disparity of professional conduct that has occurred to this public employee and on the dime of Arcata voters," wrote resident Daniel Bixler.

A short time later, someone sent Watson an email under the pseudonym "Hugo Fuckof" addressed "hey asshole," that urged him to resign and warning if he didn't he "might have a nasty accident."

The other emails calling for Watson's resignation did not include threats or name calling. Some were from people who identified themselves as former supporters or current friends. Some were long and detailed, and others direct and to the point. Some urged him to do the right thing for the community, others for his own mental health and well being. But all 30 were clear about what they felt he needed to do.

"Your behavior is intolerable," wrote resident Scott Greacen. "If you do not immediately resign, I will join the vast majority of Arcata voters in recalling you from office."

Tom Wheeler wrote he's always appreciated the amount of time and energy Watson commits to the city, saying it goes "far and above the expectations of the office."

Wheeler continued, "I have understood that you did this because of your deep love and commitment to the city. ... In that same spirit of service to the city of Arcata, I ask that you resign your office because it does not appear you can ... effectively continue as a city councilor."

After Watson struck a defiant posture at a May 17 special city council meeting called to discuss the report, at which the council voted to strip Watson of his committee assignments and limit his access to city staff, while directing staff to get a restraining order against him, calls for his resignation continued.

"Your behavior at last night's special meeting of the Arcata City Council was appalling," wrote resident Jan Bramlett. Your dissertation on your victim's alleged complicity made my skin crawl. Is there nothing or no one that can convince you of your unfitness for this public office?"

Resident Lisa Pelletier wrote multiple times to call on Watson to resign, then followed up sending him a link to the Lost Coast Outpost's coverage of the May 17 meeting — a story headlined "The City of Arcata Will Have to Live with Brett Watson a Few More Months, as the Councilmember Refuses to Allow Himself to Feel Shame or Remorse." Watson replied enthusiastically: "They posted a link to my statement! Thanks for sharing. I thought you were mad at me?"

Pelletier responded only: "I am, but also sad. The headline says it all."

One of the more bizarre series of emails begins May 19, when someone identified in the documents only as B. Ennie wrote: "Yes your fellow council members are horrible caddy [sic] bitches. Agreed. Yes, you NEED to exit stage left bro." Ennie then referenced Watson's DUI arrest last August and warned the councilmember is costing taxpayers money and should resign.

Ennie then followed up June 25 to say he'd emailed Watson's fellow councilmembers — referring to them as "three bitches" — and counseling Watson: "Your [sic] not alone." Ennie writes again July 23, applauding the combative stance Watson has taken with staff at council meetings.

"Love how you are swinging your dick in those meetings and taking no shit," Ennie wrote. "Fuck those Jewish bitches. City attorney city council bitches ... all Jews."

He then urged Watson to sue the city to get the "millions you deserve" before signing off: "Women are cunts. The only thing worse than a woman is a group of them together and you being the only man. Don't let those bitches trap you."

Six days after receiving it, Watson forwarded the email to Arcata Police Chief Brian Ahearn to make the department "aware of this person," saying he should have sent it earlier but it "slipped [his] mind."

As noted earlier, a handful of emails do express support Watson and his efforts. On May 31, a local resident wrote to compliment him on a letter to the editor, saying it was "very good and convincing," and urging him to pursue information about the cost of the investigation and who hired Kramer Workforce Investigations.

"This should be done in a timely manner," the resident wrote. "Both my husband and I support you."

But the overwhelming sentiment expressed in the emails mirrors that espoused during public comment at Arcata City Council meeting: calls for Watson to resign.

John Webb wrote June 5, saying he'd worked on Watson's campaign, supported his endorsement by the North Coast People's Alliance and helped him get elected.

"Because of my previous political support for you, I feel some amount of responsibility to the public for enabling your role as an Arcata City Council member and mayor," Webb wrote. "Consequently, I must ask you to heed the outcry of those asking for your immediate resignation."

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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Thadeus Greenson

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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