Investigation details complaints about St. Helens city councilor
This week shed some more light on a dispute between St. Helens City Councilor Stephen Topaz and city employees, as the city released a seven-page summary of an investigation into Topaz's conduct and Topaz fired back with a sharply worded statement of his own.
The independent investigation, which was conducted by Portland attorney Jill Goldsmith on behalf of the city, levels several accusations against Topaz, including that he bullied staff, behaved in a discriminatory manner, and used derogatory and racist language.
Obtained by the Spotlight through a public records request, Goldsmith's summary states in part: "There is significant, credible evidence that Topaz has bullied staff, attempted to engage in adverse behavior against a staff member based on her gender and his own personal prejudices and made derogatory statements about staff publicly and privately based on his gender bias and personal prejudices."
The summary continued, "There is also significant and concerning evidence that Topaz has made untrue or unfounded statements or omitted significant information in his statements about the city, its projects and its employees both publicly and interpersonally which could have had the effect of creating a false impression in the minds of others about city staff and projects."
The allegations against Topaz were previously laid out at an April 20 open hearing at St. Helens City Hall. At that hearing, which Topaz requested be open to the public, Assistant City Administrator Matt Brown accused Topaz of humiliating and harassing city employees. He also suggested he believes Topaz has violated government ethics code and potentially even federal employment law.
In the summary, Goldsmith writes, "Multiple witnesses told me they had personal interactions with Topaz in which he flatly told them he had no intention of working productively with anyone at the city. Witnesses gave me many examples of Topaz behaving in a contemptuous or bullying manner both to staff and to his fellow councilors."
Citing sources, the summary goes into detail about some of Topaz's alleged statements and actions.
Topaz used anti-Asian, anti-Mexican and anti-Black racial slurs, witnesses told Goldsmith, she writes in the report.
"Witnesses told me Topaz routinely refers to a local canyon as 'Nxxxxx Creek,'" Goldsmith writes, censoring the n-word. "Witnesses who have lived in St. Helens for decades had never heard the creek called this until they heard Topaz use this term. … Of course, Topaz is not from St. Helens; he is from the East Coast and would not have grown up in St. Helens hearing the creek referred to in this way."
Goldsmith also makes note of two commentaries Topaz wrote that were published in the Columbia County Spotlight in which he was critical of city staff. The summary argues that at points in these commentaries — one published on June 28, 2019, and the second published Aug. 30, 2020 — Topaz mischaracterized the words and actions of city staff, including claiming last year that they muted him during virtual Zoom meetings.
While noting that Topaz did ask several questions at meetings before that second commentary was published in the Spotlight as a letter to the editor, Goldsmith adds, "I note that there were times when Topaz has been asked not to make comments that were deemed inappropriate in either timing or content, and the Mayor, whose role it is to ensure proper meeting behavior, asked him to cease."
The summary also notes Topaz's history of legal battles with City Hall, suggesting they may underpin this alleged pattern of behavior. Topaz sued the city in 2010 over a stormwater and sewer repair project that he argued caused his property to flood.
Columbia County Circuit Judge Ted Grove dismissed the suit in 2012, but Topaz appealed to the Oregon Court of Appeals. He withdrew the appeal in late 2012 after reaching a settlement with the city, according to court records.
Goldsmith writes that witnesses told her Topaz continues to blame an unidentified city employee for the flooding issue, and that as a city councilor, he has made sexist comments about her, attempted to block her promotion and has demanded that she resign. Her name and title have been redacted from the executive summary.
Goldsmith acknowledges in her report that she did not interview Topaz, although she writes that she interviewed nine city employees, a vendor, and four other current or former elected officials during the fact-finding process.
Topaz did not respond to multiple requests for an interview following the April 20 hearing. But in a written statement provided to the Spotlight on Tuesday, April 27, the city councilor denied the allegations.
"I am being targeted for whistleblower retaliation by one or more unelected city bureaucrats," wrote Topaz, who was first elected to the City Council in 2018. "These unelected officials do not like me asking questions. They do not like me holding them accountable. They do not like me doing my job for my constituents."
Topaz continued, "In truth, I have on multiple occasions as part of my attempts to improve the city reported multiple city officials to state and federal agencies for violations of the law. All of these reports have been founded and resulted in action being taken. My hope was that this would correct bad behavior. Instead, as a result of these reports, I am now the target of a malicious smear campaign led by one of the city bureaucrats whom I previously reported to a state regulatory body."
Topaz said the allegations against him are false "and the city is hiding behind anonymous alleged witnesses and conclusory allegations. There has been no evidence presented against me, and the city council may vote to 'discipline' me without hearing a shred of actual evidence. So much for due process."
Both Goldsmith and city representatives at the April 20 hearing cited problems getting in touch with Topaz about the investigation.
"Despite eight separate attempts to contact councilor Topaz by email and phone, councilor Topaz never contacted me," Goldsmith writes. "My assistant attempted to contact him, I had attempted to contact him, and a Jordan Ramis attorney also attempted to contact him."
Topaz repeatedly claimed at the hearing that he had not seen the results of the investigation.
In his statement, Topaz argued that the investigation was costing taxpayers money.
"I would encourage the people of St. Helens to ask the city how much taxpayer money they have spent on trying to smear me," Topaz wrote. "I would encourage the people to ask why the city still refuses to identify who is making these unfounded allegations against me? Why are they trying to keep the 'investigation' against me a secret?"
While the city charter does not allow the St. Helens City Council to vote to remove one of its members, the council did inquire about possible disciplinary action at the April 20 hearing.
Disciplinary measures the council can consider include public censure. By Oregon law, a recall election is allowed, but petitioners must collect a large number of signatures from voters in order to get a recall onto the ballot.
The topic of discipline is expected to be brought up at a future council meeting.
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