Brookings City Council removed Teresa Lawson and Candice Michel from their volunteer committee board seats Tuesday, despite overwhelming support from a standing-room-only audience.
Lawson sat on the city’s budget committee; Michel has served on the Tourism Promotion Advisory Committee (TPAC) since its inception almost eight years ago.
The vote was 3-2, with Councilors Brent Hodges and Dennis Triglia casting votes against.
Mayor Jake Pieper, who nominated the two women to their respective committees, also initiated their removal.
He said Lawson, while running a “spirited campaign” against him for the mayoral seat this election season, ran on a platform that was “was incredibly degrading” to the financial situation of the city, turning its budget into a political issue.
Pieper said Michel was not properly presenting herself as a city representative when she spoke out against the tree-cutting in Azalea Park, and that she has been “hostile toward the council and staff to the point I’ve never seen here in 11 years.” He also cited her opposition to funding the Fourth of July fireworks and the “occasional hall” to be built at Salmon Run golf course.
“That just doesn’t work for me,” Pieper said. “The freedom of speech comes with a certain level of accountability. You’re still a city official and should conduct yourself in such a manner.”
About 10 citizens addressed the issue, all asking Pieper to rescind his request. Some noted the city has enough trouble finding volunteers to fill committee seats; others suggested he discuss his concerns with the two before proceeding to remove them.
Some said the action was a petty and vindictive maneuver toward Lawson because she ran against Pieper in the election, and likened it to an autocracy run by despots and tyrants.
“It’s important to have people with different voices or we don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes,” said resident Dave Carlson. “I don’t think it’s right to just get rid of them.”
“Just because we don’t 100 percent agree doesn’t mean voices shouldn’t be heard,” said resident Debra Worth. “It looks like anyone who’s a Democrat can’t run for anything in this city.”
Lawson said while the Azalea Park tree-cutting issue didn’t go the way she’d hoped, she didn’t hold a grudge against those who voted for it.
“I pick my issues and comments carefully,” Lawson told the council. “I did not resign when requested because I felt I had not said anything that warranted such a request, and asking me to do so sends a very harmful message going forward.
“Differing opinions are a healthy component of any organization,” she continued. “What is not healthy is silencing and intimidating voices that offer positive but differing opinions. These removals are sending a message to all citizens of Brookings: Don’t speak up regarding anything.
“If I or anyone is removed from a city advisory committee because we were engaged citizens involved in the democratic cornerstone of America — governance by the people for the people — it is a sad day for Brookings,” Lawson said.
That topic prompted others to say it gave the appearance the city council only wants people on its boards who will rubber-stamp its goals and that it doesn’t want to hear opposing viewpoints on issues.
Resident Jim Benson asked Pieper to deliver an apology, and absent that, resign. A third option, he said, could be a recall: “He cannot work with people with differing opinions.”
In her defense, Michel said it is her “sacred duty as an American citizen to speak up when elected representatives don’t appear to value the perspectives of their constituency.”
She acknowledged the council has the authority to remove committee board members, but asked if that was good governance.
“To ignore their voices, just because they differ from yours, just isn’t smart,” Michel said. “So, you kick some volunteers off committees — what is the net result? Those of you in power get to conduct business as usual without the pesky input of some people who don’t share your perspectives.
“But who ultimately suffers? I maintain it’s the city of Brookings, as you throw valuable volunteers under the bus,” Michel said. “I know I make a difference. Getting booted off isn’t going to stop my involvement in participatory government. It certainly won’t stop my voice. Silencing one’s political critics is the work of tyrants and despots.”
Some citizens said they thought the removal was reaction to the election, particularly since Pieper sent emails to Lawson and Michel the evening after votes were in.
“It makes me question whether I should choose to be involved, if this is the way this community is run,” said citizen Mary Ralls. “It reflects very poorly on this body.”
Some brought the right to free speech into the equation.
“I’m ashamed to call you guys my city council,” said Shane Eck. “You’re just up there for yourselves, and when people bring problems to you, you shut them down. When you shut people down, you can’t thrive as a community. Why don’t you want people to have a voice?”
“This kind of behavior, mayor, divides us when we do not need dividing,” said Barbara Bronstein of Harbor.
Rationale and the vote
City councilors addressed Michel’s status first, acknowledging her work for the tourism committee, but agreeing that her removal would be best.
“We’ve been called a lot of things here tonight,” said Councilor Ron Hedenskog. “A deaf individual, a tyrant, power-hungry, an autocrat — Trump. I’m surprised someone didn’t come out and win the argument by saying we might as well be Adolf Hitler.
“To be referred to as an individual that doesn’t listen to constituents — are you so silly to think my phone doesn’t ring at night and friends tell me how they’d like to see a decision? That I don’t bump into friends at Fred Meyer and people explain how the city should move?”
Hedenskog said he was shocked by Michel’s words in an Aug. 3 TPAC meeting and wondered how anyone coming in to do business with the city could get an unbiased decision.
“I called the mayor that morning,” Hedenskog said, “and said, ‘We’ve got to do something about this.’”
Triglia said he agreed with every speaker who supported Lawson and Michel, adding that the arguments Pieper held up for their dismissal were “pure unadulterated BS.”
“If we can’t have different voices expressed without fear of retribution, without fearing abusive power from this body, what are we doing it for?” Triglia said. “This is outrageous. This will make it harder to fill community vacancies — people are not going to want to speak their minds. It seems the only people who the city wants on committees are those who rubber stamp the ideas going on.”
Pieper said his motivation had nothing to do with silencing different opinions.
“We’re where we are because Candice Michel chose to exercise her free speech rights and act and speak a certain way,” Pieper said. “It is her right, but as the appointing authority, I’m within my rights to ask council to back her removal. I’m glad we’re all exercising our rights today.”
Triglia said he never heard Lawson speak poorly of the city, and called the removal action vindictive, noting that Pieper could have checked to see when Lawson’s term was up — in February — and perhaps declined her application when she re-applied.
Hedenskog, too, said he has never attempted to silence anyone in a city council meeting.
“A committee, it’s different,” he said. “We’re talking about running a ship. Teamwork, not teamwork to be in opposition to the team. It’s an absolutely different thing.”
Councilor Bill Hamilton said he, too, is offended when people accuse councilors of rubber-stamping issues.
“Teresa, I appreciated her work,” he said. “But I think at this point and time, in my opinion, there’s too many differences of opinions between the city mayor and her position on the committee. I’m sorry it’s come to that.”
Wednesday, Michel said, the uplifting sight for her was the “standing room only crowd, with people standing in the hallways, and the dozen or more people who spoke so eloquently about what America is, what volunteers are, and what throwing capable volunteers under the bus means to a city run by volunteers. We lost another battle, but Mayor Pieper, Ron Hedenskog and Bill Hamilton are on the wrong side of history for this. We will not be silenced, not now, not ever.”