West Linn discusses councilor harassment complaint
Less than a month before Election Day, the city of West Linn released records related to a harassment complaint filed by Councilors Teri Cummings and Rich Sakelik regarding the conduct of Councilor Jules Walters.
The release includes a 10-minute executive session video in which Walters repeatedly used profane language, as well as the investigator's report. Walters and Sakelik — who are both running for mayor in the November election — have clashed repeatedly on the dais over the past two years.
Though the video has sparked online conversations among West Linn residents about the conduct befitting a mayor, it remains to be seen how the video and complaint itself will affect voters' decisions.
Earlier this month, a post with a link to the executive session video on the West Linn Open Forum, a Facebook page dedicated to the discussion of West Linn matters, garnered over 350 comments in 36 hours.
Some comments expressed shock and disapproval of Walters' behavior in the video, while others defended her actions.
The executive session at the heart of the complaint took place June 9 and was one of several where the council discussed a citizen panel that would participate in a virtual interview of city manager candidates.
The 10-minute executive session excerpt focuses on Walters' objection to the appointment of a particular person on the committee.
Walters made clear her objection was based on this person's history of homophobic, transphobic and other discriminatory remarks.
"There's no reason to exclude him, however we feel about his personal feelings," Sakelik said in the first minute of the video.
City Attorney Tim Ramis then said it seemed that three councilors were in favor of appointing this person to the interview panel.
Walters said she was embarrassed to work with the council and "shut up" and "f*** off" during an exchange with Cummings.
She later directed "f*** off" at Sakelik and the two argued about the nature of hate speech.
"I know you're old, but that doesn't mean you get to pretend people's basic human rights don't exist," Walters said.
Walters' concern over this citizen, Tom Meier, stemmed from a 2019 email he sent to Cummings in which he derided an LGBTQ+ pride proclamation made by the council, arguing that the council should have instead made a proclamation about the West Linn Library's dog, Otto, who had just been named K-9 King of the Rose Festival.
"It's amazing that animals have a greater sense of moral law based on Natural law than some folks who wish to parade their poor choices before everyone in defiance of both Natural and Moral law," Meier wrote to Cummings.
Walters also expressed concern about an "All Lives Matter" statement from Meier (who is now running for City Council) that Sakelik read into the record at a meeting following the council's Black Lives Matter proclamation.
The investigation report also addressed allegations from Cummings and Sakelik about other occasions in which Walters used profane language and denigrated their age and family status.
Based on testimony from the five councilors as well as recordings from the June 9 executive session, a Dec. 18, 2019, executive session and March 3, 2020, public meeting, investigator Michael Tom, a Portland-based attorney, found Walters "engaged in discrimination based on age" and violated council rules, code of conduct and civility guidelines.
What do people in West Linn make of this?
"This is not someone who should be mayor," West Linn resident Eleanor Wynn said of Walters in an interview with the Tidings.
But a scroll through comments on the West Linn Open Forum (the original post with the video link came from Wynn) shows not everyone feels this way.
"She just earned my vote," quipped one commentor.
Michael Selvaggio, a West Linn resident and lobbyist, stated that the complaint "reeked of political motivation."
The timing of the complaint and Cummings' announcement of it at a council meeting earlier this month, plus the limited information released about it, made him particularly suspicious of the political motivations, Selvaggio told the Tidings.
"I know that the complainants have said 'we made this before we knew Walters was going to run for mayor, but they made it against the two people who were most likely to run, Walters and (Mayor Russ) Axelrod," he said.
In the complaint, Cummings and Sakelik also accused Axelrod of permitting and supporting Walter's discriminatory remarks and actions. The investigator found no violations by the mayor.
"We saw in the meeting where they voted to release it, they wanted it put up not just on the city website, but on what they call the spotlight (on the homepage of the website). It was very important that this was front and center for them," Selvaggio continued. "I can understand that you want your opponent's issue as front and center as possible, but then to claim that there is no political motivation behind that, I really don't see how there can't be."
Resident David Baker felt similarly about the motivations behind the complaint.
"Sakelik and company are going to use this. It really feels like a trap that they had set for Walters," Baker said. "It really feels like a political stunt."
Sakelik repeatedly has said that there was no political motivation behind the complaint and that he, in fact, made it months before he knew either he or Walters would be running for the election.
Selvaggio found the refusal to release more information about the June 9 executive session for context of the situation especially troubling. Walters had asked that two executive sessions prior to the June 9 meeting be released as well so citizens could have a better understanding of the whole picture.
Others on social media said they'd also like to see the context Walters was trying to provide. Walters said she sent the recordings of the other two executive sessions to the investigator, but they were not listed as evidence considered in his investigation report.
Wynn and Baker were less concerned about the context for the video.
"There is no justification for the way she behaved," Baker said.
Wynn said she didn't agree with Walters when she accused the citizen panel appointee, Cummings and Sakelik of using hate speech.
"It sort of represents the 'cancel culture' of 'oh, you said something I don't like and my feelings are hurt by it. You need to lose your job.' That is an epidemic right now online and I don't support it," Wynn said.
Wynn and Baker also were concerned about the ageism behind Walters' words.
Baker said he's heard Walters make ageist remarks before, and not only directed at other councilors. He also said older folks are some of the most vulnerable in West Linn.
"The mocking of age is discriminatory, but nobody ever calls it out," Wynn said. "It is the one allowed discrimination today."
Selvaggio also called attention to where he believes sexism has come into play with this complaint.
"I've worked closely with public officials for about a quarter of a century and I can tell you that being impassioned and using powerful language is something that sometimes is derided, sometimes it's celebrated," Selvaggio said. "Emotions run high sometimes, but I have never seen anyone say about a male politician, 'Gosh that wasn't really protocol and thusly, they are unfit for service,' in the same way that I'm seeing it against Councilor Walters. And I think that's drastically unfair."
How will this affect mayoral election?
Baker and Wynn both described Walters' conduct in the video and detailed in the complaint as unbecoming of a mayor. But both of them also said they had decided prior to this scandal that they would not be voting for her.
Baker and Wynn are tired of the dysfunction displayed by the council over the past several years, and to them, the complaint and video are further evidence that Walters is not the right candidate to bring about necessary change.
On the other hand, Walters' supporters have come to her defense.
Walters herself said she was standing up for marginalized members of the community during the executive session.
"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," she said during the Oct. 1 council meeting before the council voted to release the video and investigation report.
Walters also noted that never before this instance has anyone filed a harassment complaint against her.
"I have a reputation in the community for working well with others," she said.
Those who know her have come forth on social media to express confidence in her ability to lead. Some are giving testimony to her character while also chastising that of Cummings and Sakelik, echoing sentiments former Councilor Brenda Perry shared at the Oct. 1 council meeting.
During public comments at the meeting, Perry spoke of the harassment she faced at the hands of Cummings and said Cummings herself was never the victim, but used her position to attack other councilors and city staff.
Walters said she was unsure how the complaint would affect the election.
"We'll have to let the voters decide," she said.
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