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City Council debates political motivations, First Amendment rights and discrimination

PMG FILE PHOTO - The West Linn City Council discussed releasing records related to a harassment complaint at its most recent meeting, Oct. 1. A large portion of an Oct. 1 West Linn City Council meeting to discuss release of records related to a harassment investigation turned into a debate on discrimination and First Amendment rights.

The council met in a special meeting following an executive session where the council discussed releasing information pertaining to the investigation of Councilor Jules Walters.

In June of this year, Councilors Teri Cummings and Rich Sakelik filed a harassment complaint against Walters following a June 9 executive session where they said the councilor "blew up," used foul language and made ageist remarks.

The council voted 4-1 in favor of releasing a nine-page investigative report plus an excerpt from the June 9 executive session. Mayor Russ Axelrod provided the only "no" vote.

"I'm hoping now that we took this step and we're making ourselves and the public uncomfortable with this … now we can move forward," Cummings said.

Sakelik added he'd like to get back to civility and honesty on the council.

According to Walters, her outburst came in the executive session when the council majority expressed desire to appoint a West Linn resident to the citizen panel that would participate in the June 30 virtual interviews of the top three city manager candidates.

Walters said she had repeatedly expressed concern to her fellow councilors about this resident's history of homophobic and other discriminatory remarks. She made a motion to release the two other executive sessions leading up to the June 9 meeting where the appointments were discussed to contextualize her frustrations, but the motion failed.

"I expressed several times over the course of these three executive sessions that I felt it was improper and immoral to appoint someone with these hateful beliefs to this committee, particularly because a primary motivation for hiring a new city manager was addressing West Linn's history of discrimination and cronyism. I was extremely frustrated by Councilor Sakelik's insistence on supporting the appointment of a person who has referred to the LGBTQ+ community as 'less than dogs' and openly mocked the Black Lives Matter movement in a letter that Councilor Sakelik read into the record during our pride proclamation meeting (Sakelik read a comment on behalf of this citizen at the council's June 15 meeting, in which the citizen asked the council to replace the Black Lives Matter resolution made at the previous meeting with an All Lives Matter resolution)," Walters said. "This callous disregard for our LGBTQ+ citizens, for our citizens of color and for my gay and transgender children prompted me to react so strongly. My biggest regret is that my actions have deflected from a very serious conversation about racism and homophobia on the City Council. It was not my intent to be ageist in my remarks to the councilor, but I understand that legally they were, and for that I sincerely apologize to Councilor Sakelik."

According to Sakelik, Walters never provided proof of this resident's prejudiced views.

Walters countered that in 2019, Cummings was so concerned with an email sent from this resident, in which he expressed homophobic sentiments, that she emailed it to Walters and printed it out. Walters said she forwarded the email to all members of the council.

Councilor Bill Relyea brought up his view that not allowing this resident to participate in the city manager interviews because of his beliefs would abridge his constitutional right to freedom of speech.

Walters added that she consulted with City Attorney Tim Ramis on this matter. Ramis told her that the council did not have to afford this resident the privilege of serving on the interview panel, Walters said.

Cummings maintained that they had to protect this man's right to freedom of speech, and added that his views are tied to religion, arguing the Constitution protects freedom of religion as well.

As both Sakelik and Walters are running for mayor, some members of the community have asserted that the complaint and Cummings' public announcement of the investigation at a meeting last month are politically motivated.

During public comment, former councilor Brenda Perry shared this view, saying Sakelik had shared the complaint with several of his supporters.

Sakelik replied by arguing that he had the legal right to share the complaint with whomever he liked, adding that he didn't share it with his supporters but with several members of the community whom he respects.

At one point during the meeting, Cummings asked Walters if she believed the council majority was racist and homophobic.

"When we promote a homophobic person to place of privilege, that's a discriminatory stance for the council," Walters replied. "It was really uncomfortable to read an All Lives Matter proclamation into the record two weeks after George Floyd died."

At Sakelik's request, the investigative report and June 9 executive session recording will be posted on the homepage of the city's website as soon as possible.

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