Restrictions remain on St. Helens councilor after 'incidents'
When St. Helens city councilors made the extraordinary move to censure and reprimand one of their members in May, they put restrictions in place that were expected to expire this month.
But it now appears the soonest the City Council may lift its censure of Councilor Stephen Topaz — the terms of which prevent Topaz from meeting with city staff unless City Administrator John Walsh gives his permission — is January, following a discussion at a Wednesday, Nov. 17, work session at which the mayor suggested Topaz wasn't adhering to the council's limits.
Earlier this year, on May 19, the city council voted 4-1 in favor of a resolution reprimanding and censuring Topaz, following an independent investigation that delved into behavior Topaz displayed around city co-workers.
In an executive summary of the investigation, commissioned by the city, attorney Jill Goldsmith wrote, "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."
As part of the resolution, "Councilor Topaz shall not meet with any city employee or personnel other than the city administrator or the Human Recourses Coordinator/City Recorder without pre-authorization by the city administrator."
These restrictions were to be in effect until no less than six months from the effective date, meaning that the limits imposed by the censure would have expired Nov. 19.
Instead, Topaz will remain under censure, after Mayor Rick Scholl said Topaz hasn't fully abided by the terms.
Scholl said there have been "incidents" involving Topaz in recent months, citing one in which Topaz allegedly demanded from a staff person that an item be placed on a City Council agenda rescinding a property sale agreement.
In another incident Scholl described, after being pulled over by a police officer, Topaz displayed a business card identifying himself as a city councilor.
Court records don't show any citations in Oregon against Topaz this year. Topaz told the Spotlight he was pulled over after his vehicle crossed the median when he was rounding a corner.
"I gave them my business card, but I also had my card for City Council sitting on the dashboard," Topaz said Thursday, Nov. 18, explaining the incident.
Scholl asked Bill Monahan, St. Helens' city attorney, for his input. Monahan affirmed that the council has the right to not lift the restrictions if members do not feel the terms of the censure have been followed.
"It would be my suggestion that if you are going to review this resolution, that you ask the city administrator to gather information to see if there is sufficient information that shows that there has been compliance, so you then can decide whether or not you want to reduce the censure," Monahan said.
He added, "We think there should be an evaluation of the conduct over the past six months, that we should verify that information through whatever means the city administrator might come up with and, perhaps you schedule this on an agenda — after you've given sufficient time to gather that information."
Councilor Jessica Chilton said the incidents Scholl brought up shouldn't be a reason for the censure to continue.
"Unethical, questionable things happen at these meetings all the time," Chilton said. For an example, she said Scholl had stared her down during a recent council discussion about Facebook, which Scholl denied.
Chilton did not comment further on any "questionable things" at council meetings other than to say members "do horrible things to one another."
Addressing Chilton, Council President Doug Morten said, "I apologize if I brought something up that is contentious with you. But I don't know about it."
Defending himself, Scholl said, "Yes, I will continue to challenge councilors because it is not only your role as councilors to challenge me, but my role as a mayor to challenge you. If you can't handle that, I apologize. But this is what we signed up for."
"I'm glad you have thick skin," Chilton retorted.
Topaz was largely silent during Wednesday's discussion. In May, he strenuously denied the allegations against him that Goldsmith presented, calling them "hearsay" and accusing other council members of having political motivations.
At the May 19 council meeting, the City Council voted 4-1 in favor of the reprimand-censure resolution, with Topaz casting the only "no" vote.
The council is now expected to revisit the resolution in January.
Asked if he thinks the censure will continue into the New Year, Topaz answered in the affirmative.
"Yes," he said. "This whole thing is a hit job anyway. They don't like me, so what the heck."
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