Homophobia claims at Wilsonville City Hall may spur lawsuit
The city of Wilsonville's legal team may soon need to defend at least one defamation lawsuit and multiple legal actions.
During a Wilsonville City Council meeting Thursday, Jan. 21, Mayor Julie Fitzgerald said the Wilsonville government has received two notices of pending litigation stemming from comments made by a councilor during a Dec. 21 meeting.
Wilsonville resident Jami Arbon confirmed to Pamplin Media Group and in testimony at the meeting that she would pursue a defamation case against the city government if they don't send her a written apology with Councilor Ben West's name signed to it by early February. The council did not address whether or not it would send the letter.
At the last council meeting of 2020, West voted against the appointments of Arbon and another resident, Shawn O'Neil, to city boards. They were the only two people who received "no" votes for appointments at that meeting. In explaining his reasoning, West accused Arbon of making homophobic and racist statements, as well as bullying.
While it approved O'Neil's appointment to the budget committee, the council tabled Arbon's nomination until the next meeting to research the validity of West's claims and then voted 4-1 (with West opposed) to approve her appointment to the Development Review Board Jan. 4. Fitzgerald said at the time she saw nothing in the record that would preclude her from voting for the appointment.
Arbon also is leaning toward pursuing legal action against West regardless of whether or not the city sends the apology letter, but said she would make the decision after the letter is received. Arbon also requested that the council censure West.
The Wilsonville resident also said she may sue the city, and not just West, because West's comments were made as a public official in his official city capacity. However, she said the rest of the council handled the situation appropriately
"He freely throws out racist and homophobe titles. He crossed the line in an official city position as councilor," Arbon said at the Jan. 4 meeting.
West did not provide proof of racial slurs but sent a screenshot to Pamplin Media Group in which Arbon wondered why someone who is gay would vote Republican in a post about West. West is gay and politically conservative.
Pamplin Media Group has not confirmed whether O'Neil is the other individual pursuing legal action and could not reach the Wilsonville resident for comment.
During the meeting Dec. 21, West said of O'Neil: "I've experienced different things from him in the community that give me pause on his appointment." West also told Pamplin Media Group in an interview O'Neil was "a buddy" of the current council status quo.
When asked after the meeting to discuss the issues, Fitzgerald said she was advised not to comment on pending or threatened litigation. During the Jan. 21 meeting, she emphasized her commitment to making sure the council follows protocols. She said councilors have a right to free speech but that they want to also be respectful.
"What is really important to me is we make sure our citizens know we value them very much and we have processes in place in our protocol manual that all city councilors agree to uphold, and we are going to work on making sure everyone does that moving forward. It is very important to me," she said.
The mayor also noted that it's her responsibility to work with councilors who may have violated behavior protocols.
"After this discussion if further inappropriate behavior continues the mayor will report the full concern to the council," she said.
Speaking generally, City Manager Bryan Cosgrove told Pamplin Media Group that if a councilor were to face legal action stemming from their role as an elected official, they'd be protected by the city's legal team through Citycounty Insurance Services. Fitzgerald did not address whether the council would issue a written apology to Arbon, nor West's comments directly.
City supports airport bill
Wilsonville City Council also voted 4-1 to support the efforts of state Rep. Courtney Neron, D-Wilsonville, to move forward a bill that would require further public processes before the Oregon Department of Aviation extends an Aurora Airport runway or completes other construction projects. West voted against the resolution.
Requirements in the bill include the involvement of the Wilsonville government in a new intergovernmental agreement, the completion of a new airport master plan, an annexation of the airport into the city of Aurora and an environmental impact analysis.
"We know this is an avoidable conflict. We want to have a seat at the table so that we can hear the plans, we can be aware of what may be possible and be a part of a good solution," City Councilor Charlotte Lehan said.
West and Eric Postma, who was representing the Wilsonville Chamber of Commerce at the meeting, expressed dismay that the council denied West's motion to allow citizen comment to take place prior to the vote instead of after the vote. Postma said the underlying communication is that the opinion of the local businesses community does not matter to the council.
"These are the sorts of things that make this issue contentious," Postma said.
Councilors Joann Linville and Kristin Akervall said concerned citizens will have a chance to voice their opinion to the Legislature about the bill.
"I would be quite concerned if I had reason to believe there was not going to be space for citizens to respond. I don't see that as being the case," Akervall said.
The city has advocated for inclusion in the IGA since 2009 and has been unhappy with its lack of involvement in airport planning. Fitzgerald also mentioned the city's concerns related to traffic, development advantages for unincorporated urban uses and environmental impact related to the airport. Airport advocates, however, have been frustrated by the city's contestation of construction projects they say will improve safety.
Regardless of the bill, Fitzgerald said she heard from ODA Director Betty Stansbury that the city would be included in the new intergovernmental agreement.
"I'm very enthused by that," she said.
Many citizens also provided testimony at the meeting in opposition or support of Neron's legislation that would essentially ban boaters with boats weighing 4,000 pounds or more from performing wakesports in the Newberg Pool portion of the Willamette River (which includes Wilsonville) during the meeting. City Council has not taken a stance on the legislation nor watersports-related issues generally.
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