St. Helens City Council extends censure of Stephen Topaz
The St. Helens City Council voted Wednesday evening, Jan. 5, to extend the censure of Councilor Stephen Topaz another six months.
On May 19, 2021, the council voted in favor of a resolution of reprimand and censure following an independent investigation that uncovered numerous complaints against Topaz, including accusations of harassing city employees.
Topaz was ordered, by way of the censure, not to interact with city employees without the approval of John Walsh, St. Helens' city administrator.
Councilors discussed the matter at a Wednesday afternoon work session before ultimately voting, 4-0 with Topaz abstaining, that evening to extend the censure.
At that work session earlier in the day, Council President Doug Morten tried to get Topaz to address his censure. It was an opportunity for Topaz to make amends with the other four members of the council, or to make a case for why the censure ought to be lifted.
Instead, Topaz remained combative, listing previous accusations against him, including his use of a racial slur.
"I've got a list," Topaz began. "A number of things were said that I did wrong. One was use the n-word. That was done in a court case against the city. The city was negligent in not putting a storm drain line in our neighborhood."
Topaz was a regular critic of the city government before St. Helens voters elected him to the council in 2018. He has continued to criticize city staff and fellow council members from his position as a councilor.
Last year, St. Helens contracted attorney Jill Goldsmith to investigate city employees' complaints about Topaz's behavior. Goldsmith reported to the council that she spoke with multiple people who said Topaz used derogatory language, demeaned employees, and may have used his authority improperly to get back at one employee with whom he had a long-running dispute.
"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," Goldsmith wrote in a summary report.
In November, the City Council discussed the possibility of lifting the six-month censure it imposed last May, but it tabled that decision until January after Mayor Rick Scholl said he had been made aware of incidents in which Topaz allegedly continued to pressure city employees despite the restriction on him doing so.
Walsh said Wednesday that while there have been some interactions between Topaz and city employees during the censure period — he didn't go into detail — there was no evidence of harassment or harm done in that time.
Topaz has denied most of the allegations and described the investigation as retaliation for his criticism of City Hall.
Goldsmith did not interview Topaz as part of her probe.
After Topaz finished speaking Wednesday afternoon — with neither apology nor attempt at reconciliation — Scholl expressed disappointment.
"I'm very upset at your response, Councilor Topaz," Scholl said. "I really am."
Councilor Jessica Chilton agreed with Scholl.
"I would never treat staff the way that you have treated them, ever," said Chilton, who had expressed openness to lifting the censure at the November meeting. "I was really hoping that you would have at least learned that piece of it, that you can't treat people that way."
Councilor Patrick Birkle made the motion at the evening meeting that asked for a six-month extension of the censure. The vote was 4-0, with Topaz abstaining.
Before the vote, Birkle said, "We don't have really any other sanctions except to continue this. I also want to make it clear that this is in no way an attempt to silence you, or to prevent you from bringing your concerns to staff and to the council."
Addressing Topaz, Chilton said, "I think that your lack of insight is really scary to me. I'm hoping that maybe you will take the next six months to really reflect on it and how you treat staff and how you do your job as a city councilor."
Morten suggested he had hoped for more introspection from Topaz.
"I was in your corner to try to find some remorse and a bit of an apology to those that you might have offended," Morten said. "I'm disappointed … because that would have changed things for me."
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