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'Undisputed' 

Investigation finds Arcata councilmember harassed city employee

click to enlarge Brett Watson

COURTESY OF THE CITY OF ARCATA

Brett Watson

An outside investigation has found Arcata City Councilmember Brett Watson 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.

That included expecting her to respond to text messages about his personal life and feelings for her at all hours, wanting to spend hours with her each week and insisting on drawn-out hugs when the two met professionally. He was, according to the employee, a "constant interruption" in her life.

It also found Watson retaliated against the unnamed employee — criticizing her work and threatening to put her job performance up for review — when she deflected his romantic interest and tried to set boundaries on their interactions.

The recently released findings by the Danville-based law firm Kramer Workplace Investigations offer the first real insight into allegations that surfaced publicly at an Oct. 20 special Arcata City Council meeting when Watson's fellow councilmembers removed him from his second turn as mayor and cast a vote of no confidence in his ability to serve as an elected representative, citing unspecified "alleged behaviors" that had come to light.

Within days, Watson announced he was entering a treatment program "to focus on depression and personal issues," but returned to the dais in late November, with the city launching the investigation shortly afterward.

The names of the employee and seven witnesses interviewed were redacted from the 28-page report released to the Journal under a California Public Records Act request, which included hundreds of additional pages of support documents, including emails and text messages between Watson and the employee, as well as contemporaneous notes she took to document their interactions.

Watson was not interviewed, according to the report, despite repeated unsuccessful scheduling attempts with a succession of three attorneys who each represented him briefly over the course of two months.

In a statement to the Journal, Watson wrote that he has "never harassed anyone" in his life, "worked tirelessly for the residents of Arcata" and tried to make himself available for an interview but was "never contacted by the investigator."

"I'll likely make further comment after I've been able to completely review the report and additional documents," he wrote in the email. "I'm grateful to the public for their continued support over the last several months."

Citing the totality of the information gathered during the investigation, including interviews with the employee and witnesses, as well as the volumes of exchanges between the employee and Watson, the report found Watson engaged in "unprofessional and inappropriate conduct," and "abuse of his power as a city councilmember."

"The credible evidence presented during the investigation establishes by a preponderance of the evidence that the allegations against Watson are sustained," it states.

The employee's interview with the investigator and her notes detail an escalating pattern of behavior that began in 2019 and continued into late 2021. She said she first noticed a change in Watson's demeanor when he became mayor following his 2018 election to a four-year term after being appointed to the council in 2017.

The employee said she "developed an uncomfortable sense" about the way Watson wanted to control meeting agendas and council discussions, and that he began to focus on "the rules pertaining to his authority and her authority," describing him as a "conspiracy theorist."

She said Watson also began making staff uncomfortable by spending more and more time at city hall, constantly nitpicking their work and statements.

Around this time, the employee received her first indications that Watson had feelings for her, when an unnamed individual she knew called to say he was "bizarrely critical of staff" when they met in Sacramento while he was interviewing for a seat on the California Coastal Commission but talked about having "deep feelings" for the employee.

The employee said she decided to "let it go" and not tell anyone.

Later that year, the employee said she first noticed Watson "was being possessive of her" after he became upset she was going on a business trip with another councilmember, calling each of his fellow council members to "see if they thought that was appropriate and to tell them why he thought it was inappropriate."

When the employee told Watson he'd crossed a line, he reportedly responded by saying he should call a closed session discussion on her performance, then said he hoped he would be traveling with her at some point.

Between late 2019 and early 2020, the employee said, Watson became "obsessed" with minor city issues and "created" problems as an excuse to call her, with his demands on her time continuing to increase, which she attributed to things being "rough in his life."

The situation began to spiral in May and June of 2020, the employee said, after Watson told her during one of their weekly walks that he had developed a crush on her and his "feelings were really deep" and "not something that will just blow over."

The employee said she responded by telling Watson he would need to work out those feelings on his own, saying Watson said he "understood," but went on to talk about how their relationship was "so different" and "she was the best friend he ever had."

When the employee insisted they could not be best friends because he was her boss, Watson reportedly became very mad, telling her they could "do the employer employee thing" and that it was easy for him to be "cold-blooded and tell her everything she was doing wrong," according to the report.

For the next several months, the employee said, their interactions fell into a "recurring theme," with Watson getting angry at her then apologizing and saying how much he needed her, and insisting he was working on his behavior.

Instead, he continued to push to spend more time with her, sending her incessant text messages and emails about his feelings, mental health state, work, family life and sometimes just the minutiae of his day, and becoming upset when she did not respond fast enough, the employee told investigators.

Around the same time, she said, Watson began talking about stepping down from the council but did not follow through. The employee said she knew he was struggling with his mental health and other personal issues, and he often brought up his drinking, marital troubles, therapy sessions and inability to sleep.

"You're the only person I've ever known that always makes me feel like everything is going to be okay," he wrote her in June of 2020. "There's no amount of exercise or medication or anything that compares to how you make me feel better. You're so important to me and it makes me really afraid of losing you as a friend and I'm really afraid of doing something or saying something that will detract from our friendship in any way."

But, the employee said, Watson continued not to accept the boundaries that she tried to establish.

Hundreds of pages of text messages between Watson and the employee disclosed as a part of the report paint a picture of a man struggling with depression and other mental health issues, struggles that he seemed at times to use to manipulate the employee into further interactions as he navigates marital and family problems, as well as the death of his father.

In her interview with investigators, the employee noted this, saying Watson had "found her kryptonite," knowing she wanted to help people and needed to support him "to ensure the city functioned properly." The report also notes that Watson's text messages evidence not only an "unrealistic expectation" of the employee, "but also his dependency on her, which exceeds the boundaries of a supervisor/subordinate relationship."

The employee related how, after she told the council about plans to take a vacation in August of 2020, Watson had called her the Friday night before her departure to say he was "mad" and "he did not know how he could be away from her for one week."

A similar scenario occurred the following February, when she left town to attend a funeral and again when she went on another trip in May of 2021, according to the employee. She told the investigator that "she had conversations with Watson during all of her vacations, none of which were work-related," explaining that "she considers it part of her job to be there for the councilmembers."

The employee also related that at some point Watson told her he needed a hug and it became a "ritual" when they saw each other. There were occasions when he "went to her office and would not leave without a hug," and others when he would ask for a hug during a walk, which she would give him because "she knew they would not go anywhere."

Intermixed with these interactions, the employee said Watson also began talking disparagingly about other councilmembers and pressuring her to tell him about what she discussed with them, becoming angry when she refused.

"I fucking have to do this all the time," she said he responded. "Box you in so you're straight with me because you sidestep stuff, and I guess I just need to be your boss and you just need to do everything by the fucking book."

By June of 2021, according to the report, the employee said she was "done" with Watson's constant need for attention and told him "she was exhausted and tired of the harassment and the abuse and she could not take it anymore."

One of the witnesses, who previously served on the council with Watson, told investigators that the employee broke down during a conversation with her that month, saying Watson had his "hooks in her" and that she "had had enough."

Two months later, when Watson was arrested for a DUI, he called the employee to come pick him up from jail, which she did, though she declined his invitation to come inside the house when she dropped him off.

At the time, Watson released a statement saying he was reeling from the one-year anniversary of his father's suicide and took "full responsibility for the results of the arrest while recognizing the importance of seeking treatment to support my mental health."

The employee said she assumed he would step down as mayor at that point but he did not, citing an outpouring of support from the community.

One month later, the situation came to a head when the employee, Watson and another councilmember attended a conference in Sacramento during which he acted possessively and was "glued" to the employee's side, according to the report.

After the three had a dinner out, Watson reportedly pressured the employee to finish a bottle of wine they'd brought back to the hotel from the restaurant but she "sternly" refused.

When the employee didn't answer his text, Watson contacted the other councilmember attending the conference and ended up having an all-night discussion with her, partly about Watson's relationship with the employee.

That other councilmember took the employee aside the next day and told her that Watson was "absolutely obsessed with her," that it was not OK and that something needed to be done, according to the report.

That conversation set in motion a closed session meeting Oct.13, where Watson's actions were discussed with the full council, during which Watson reportedly accused the employee of wanting him to resign because he questioned her, saying she "wanted her power back," according to the report. But by the meeting's end, the report states Watson agreed to step down as mayor.

When he did not, the Oct. 20 special meeting was called, at which the four other councilmembers removed Watson from the position of mayor and issued a public rebuke.

According to the report, little changed after Watson returned from his residential treatment. After not hearing from him for week, the employee said Watson walked into her office unannounced on Dec. 1 and wanted to go over a meeting agenda.

The interaction did not go well, according to the employee.

After Watson said he felt "betrayed by her," she said she explained that "others noticed how he treated her" and "gave him the option to resign," which he did not.

Soon after, the city hired Kramer Workplace Investigations.

What happens next is unclear. As an elected official, which the city noted when the investigation was launched, Watson can not be fired, reassigned or placed on administrative leave, as might be done in a similar situation involving an employee.

Also unknown is how the city will navigate the situation moving forward. When the accusations first came to light, the city enacted what officials described as a "special set of protocols" that prescribed with whom, how and when Watson could interact with staff.

The report's release also comes during a period of transition for the council, which has seen two of the five seats turn over in less than a year, with one of those vacancies slated to be filled by one of six candidates running in the June election.

Watson's seat, and that of Councimember Meredith Matthews, who was appointed to finish the term of former Mayor Sofia Pereira last summer, will also be on the ballot in November.

A special 6 p.m. meeting to discuss the report is currently scheduled for May 17.

Kimberly Wear (she/her) is the digital editor at the Journal. 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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