Staff claims 'public humiliation' by Oregon city councilor
In an unusual rupture between a sitting city councilor and city employees, St. Helens City Councilor Stephen Topaz was accused Tuesday, April 20, by the assistant city administrator of "harassment and public humiliation."
The St. Helens City Council held an open hearing Tuesday night — the first meeting it has actually held in the council chambers in months, due to the coronavirus pandemic — to consider whether to discipline Topaz after an investigation found multiple instances of improper conduct.
The investigation report was not released to the public before the meeting, and councilors agreed Tuesday only to release a condensed, redacted version rather than the full document.
According to attorney Peter Hicks, presenting the city's case against Topaz, the investigation focused on five allegations:
• Topaz "attempted to put his personal residence on the list of city projects" during a budget meeting, in what Hicks characterized as an attempt to have the city perform work on his own home due to flooding problems.
• Topaz "bullied staff, spread false statements about them and … behaved in a discriminatory manner."
• Topaz attempted to use his position and influence as a city councilor to block an employee's promotion and try to get the city to fire her.
• Topaz used derogatory and racist language on several occasions, including referring to disabled individuals as "cripples" and referring to Asian Americans as "Chinamen." Hicks also noted that Topaz used the n-word multiple times at a public meeting, in referring to the historical name of a local canyon.
• Topaz "used his platform as a city councilor to make defamatory, insulting or untrue statements about city staff publicly, directly and in local media."
According to Kathy Payne, St. Helens' city recorder, Topaz requested an open hearing for the allegations against him to be presented. He had the option of having the allegations heard in an executive session, which members of the public cannot attend and media representatives are asked not to report on.
Matt Brown, St. Helens' assistant city administrator, addressed council members and read a prepared statement at Tuesday's hearing. He said this is the third time he has complained about Topaz's behavior and treatment of city employees since July 2019.
"My first complaint came on July 5, 2019, almost two years ago," Brown said. "It outlined three very clear situations of slandering employees, admitted harassment and public humiliation of your employees. I also outlined four specific areas in the St. Helens Code of Ethics that I believe Stephen Topaz has violated and has proven himself to be a hindrance to the employees on a daily basis with his interactions, as well as being incoherent during public meetings with statements of half-truths and misguided mathematics."
Brown said he believes Topaz has violated St. Helens' code of ethics, as well as the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Act.
He scolded council members, past and present, for not taking action against Topaz.
"Two councilors that sit in there now, and two previous councilors that sat there, let his actions continue without any recourse," Brown said. "Now two new councilors have started and have begun to see Stephen in action."
Topaz was given the opportunity to rebut the allegations against him.
He acknowledged using the n-word in reference to the canyon but said it happened more than 10 years ago, before he was elected to the St. Helens City Council, and that his remarks were made in "a legal manner, both historically and legally."
Addressing the accusation that he tried to get the city to perform work on his home, Topaz said, "I can't remember ever asking for anybody to do anything on my property."
Topaz did not address the other allegations that were presented by Hicks.
In the hearing, Topaz repeatedly stated that he has not seen results from the independent investigation, an assertion Hicks disputed.
"The city has waited for Councilor Topaz to give his version of events, to have the opportunity to respond to the allegations and to be with the investigator," Hicks said. "They've waited since November. He still hasn't answered any of the allegations. He still hasn't offered any response to the actual allegations that were shared with him verbally at one meeting, and again at a second meeting. … He still didn't attend a meeting where the entire report was produced for all the City Council."
Under the St. Helens city charter, there is no mechanism by which the City Council can vote to remove one of its members from office. But various disciplinary actions are available, including public censure.
Recall elections are also allowed under Oregon law, although petitioners must collect a large number of signatures from voters in order to get a recall onto the ballot.
At the end of Tuesday's hearing, there was no action on any discipline for Topaz, but the topic will be discussed further at an upcoming City Council meeting.
The council did vote unanimously to allow for a redacted executive summary of the investigation to be presented to Topaz's attorney and to the public. The complete report, according to Hicks, has not been released due to attorney-client privilege.
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