by Brett Watson
Historically, since I started in 2017, the employee and I had constantly butted heads as I would routinely discover inappropriate and sometimes illegal decisions she would make (I’m compiling a list with supporting evidence to share with the public as soon as possible). Long before any of these allegations were made, I had warned every council member about this employee. In January of 2019, it became apparent to me that the employee was not going to change her behavior. A former council member, supervisor, and mentor told me, “She’s going to do what she’s going to do.”
In an effort to try a different approach with the employee, and to try and spare her from an embarrassing closed session review with the entire Council, I decided to try and take a more positive approach with her, improve communication, and find common ground. Around this time, I started to become depressed and was having trouble with my marriage. I started drinking more. At one point during our weekly meetings, I broke down and started crying. The employee was very compassionate and encouraged me to tell her everything that was bothering me. From then on, discussing our personal lives became routine. She was very supportive of me, gave me marriage advice, and on some occasions encouraged me to leave my wife if I wasn’t happy.
She told me personal details about her own marriage. She said her husband resented her for making him take early retirement so she could be promoted. She said he would sometimes leave on trips without telling her and wouldn’t call her for days. She said that she was spending more time with me than her husband. She also seemed sad that her son lived so far away. She talked about him often and bragged about his successes when we talked.
Sharing these details of our lives with each other started to strengthen our bond as friends.
On July 23rd, 2020, I was in Pismo Beach on City business when I learned my father had committed suicide. He had become very depressed and shot himself at his home in Indiana. The employee was one of the first people I called. I was separated from my wife at the time and the employee was one of the very few people I talked to as this was during peak COVID. My personal tragedy and the employee’s emotional support drew us closer together and we progressively started spending more time together. I fell into a very deep depression over the next year and during this time she became my primary source of emotional support.
I felt she gave me a strong impression that she had reciprocal feelings for me, those feelings being that she cared very much about me as a close friend. On one occasion she told me that she cared about me deeply. On another occasion, she expressed that she was protective of me and that we had made a “connection.” I also believe this is illustrated by many texts in the initial report. In one of her texts, she said I was really important to her. In many texts she expressed excitement for our walks and meetings together. She sent me unsolicited thank you texts and pictures of the views from our walks, as well as unsolicited pictures from her vacations.
At the end of 2020, my depression and grieving for my father were at their peak and I would regularly break down into tears when I was with her. During one of the occasions when I was very sad and crying, she came up to me and gave me a really firm hug that seemed like it lasted forever. After this, hugging became routine for our relationship. Usually, we would hug for only a moment when we saw each other and left each other and, on some occasions, she would give me long firm hugs. The hugs always made me feel significantly better and I was grateful for them but by no measure did I ever expect them from her. If I had ever had any idea they made her uncomfortable, I would have immediately discontinued the habit we formed together.
She and I regularly defined our relationship to each other as brother and sister. At one point I told her she was like a second mother to me being that she was almost 20 years older than me, and she said no because that made her feel old. She said she was more like my big sister. This is reflected in many texts in the initial report but for some odd reason, the attorney Tom Oconnell for the City redacted all of those instances.
Sometime in mid-2021 she and I both agreed that the amount and frequency of communication between us had become unhealthy for both of us. Initially, I told her it was my fault for taking so long to find effective ways to treat my depression and she responded that it was both of our faults and that we got into the situation together. She also used the phrase “it takes two to tango.” I said I wanted to make boundaries for communication, small at first, then gradually increase those boundaries over time. She agreed with this.
We went several days without communicating and when we saw each other again we both instantly went to hug each other in the middle of the hallway in front of other people, and she emphatically said she still wanted to support me. Sometimes it was difficult for me because I was still very depressed, and she always told me it was okay and that I could contact her when I needed to. There are many examples of me asking her if my communication was okay and her saying yes that it was. There is not one text or email where she told me our communication was too much for her.
During this year while I was deeply depressed, I became detached from my council duties. I stopped being curious about city business and stopped attending all of my meetings. I grew dependent on the employee to keep me informed and sometimes she told me how I should vote on different items I wasn’t well informed on. I had also become very insecure, and my anxiety was through the roof every day. I constantly worried about everything in my life, including my re-election which was a long way away. She knew this well and during negotiations with one of our labor groups last year, she told me, “You should encourage the other council members to approve this raise for everyone because it will help you in your next election.” This happened for many months and I believe she became accustomed to it.
From my perspective and my 5 years of experience with our City staff, the problem started when I began to emerge from my depression in September 2021. I had found an outstanding new therapist and I was making a lot of progress. At one point as I started to get involved in City business again, the employee made an odd comment to me. She said, “I don’t know if I like you when you’re better.”
I did have a very rough night during the Sacramento conference that September but she and the Council member who attended with me assured me it was okay, and we could move on.
In October, I was progressively getting better. On October 7th, 2021 I returned to City Hall and resumed my customary behavior of closely looking at all the staff work that comes before the Council. I’ve always followed the policy of “trust but verify.” I sensed that this annoyed the employee as she had become used to me being disengaged from Council business, which gave her the ability to operate without any real oversight. On this day in October when this all came to a head, I was reviewing a draft of our Rental Inspection Ordinance. I found several mistakes in the ordinance, one of which was a significant math error. This clearly made the employee annoyed as she always hates it when I find mistakes in staff work (If you watch our Council meetings, this happens nearly every meeting.) Shortly after that, we were chatting in her office, and she mentioned to me offhand that she had approved a significant change to the center of the Plaza. I asked if the Council had approved the change and maybe I forgot about it? She said no, but she had mentioned it in a subcommittee meeting, and I didn’t say anything at the time. I reminded her subcommittees cannot make decisions and that the Council had previously agreed not to make any changes to the Plaza without holding a public meeting because future plans for the center of the Plaza were a hotly debated issue. I expressed my unhappiness with her making such a decision without Council approval. After this conversation, she told me that she “couldn’t take it anymore” and that I needed to resign, or she was going to file a complaint against me. I was in total disbelief and speechless. She said she would give me until the following Monday to decide. Her mood then totally changed, and she started to joke with me about farm animals at a recovery center she had helped me research. Then she became angry again and said I needed to resign.
The following Monday I met with the City attorney. The attorney told me I could talk to her “off the record.” After I told her what happened, she then changed tones and told me she actually wasn’t my attorney, and she represented the City. She told me that because I was a man, I would easily lose a harassment case, no matter what. She said that if I resigned everything would go away and no one would ever know about this. Again, I was in total disbelief. I realized the City attorney was trying to trick me into resigning for something I didn’t do, and I left and got my own attorney.
My attorney told me not to talk about anything to anyone because the City would use it against me, so it tied my hands from discussing details with the Council at the time. Everyone was told not to talk to anybody about the complaint because it could compromise witnesses and a future investigation. But when I met with the Council, they all said they had already talked to the employee, and she convinced them I had harassed her. The Council members then took turns yelling at me for being a horrible person and then parroted the City attorney. They said if I resigned now no one would ever know about this and maybe I could run for office again one day. I was still suffering from depression and anxiety and was still in total disbelief about what was happening.
Ultimately, I decided the best thing to do was to step down as mayor, enter a 30-day rehabilitation program, and try to get myself mentally healthy before I made such an important decision. My attorney contacted the City attorney and told her my plans that Friday, and that’s what I did.
After talking to attorneys and mentors during the following weeks, I was encouraged to not let them bully me out of my position for something I didn’t do. I returned to my Council duties in December 2021 and at that point the City attorney said they were going to do an investigation.
It became clear to me that the City attorney had lied to the City Council several times to convince them they should impose behavioral restrictions on me. This was verified by another attorney the City hired, Tom Oconnell, months later. During an illegally declared closed session meeting in December 2021, the City attorney told the Council they had the legal authority to impose restrictions on me. The City attorney also said she had talked to my attorney and my attorney had agreed to that. I said this was the first I had heard of this and that I wanted to talk to my attorney about it. The City attorney said they didn’t have to let me talk to my attorney and the Council should just vote on it. I said I wasn’t being given due process and the City attorney replied, “Due process is a funny thing.” The Council voted to pass restrictions on me. After the meeting, I talked to my attorney and she told me she hadn’t heard of the restrictions, had never talked to the City attorney, and that she would have never said something like that. The Council is now aware of this and was witness to it.
After this, the person who made false accusations against me, the assistant City manager (whose also the director of HR), and the City attorney proceeded to harass me and make everything as difficult as possible for me every day. For 5 years my learning disability had been accommodated by staff and then all of a sudden, they said they would no longer accommodate me and I couldn’t get any of my questions answered by anyone in person or over the phone. I told the director of HR I needed to have my disability accommodated which requires me to hear large amounts and/or complex information in person to be able to fully comprehend it. At first, she basically told me, “…too bad.” I continued to press on it, and she then said I would have to get a letter from my doctor.
After providing a letter to the City from my doctor, the assistant City manager held a meeting with me and my wife as a witness to discuss how the City could accommodate me. I requested to record the meeting so I could go over the information later because of my learning disability, and since she and I were both public employees in a public building. She became very upset and refused to allow me to record. She demanded to see my phone to make sure I wasn’t recording her.
After some discussion, we didn’t see eye to eye, and we agreed to revisit the conversation in the near future after she talked to the Council, and I talked to my attorney. She spent a lot of time trying to convince me that I didn’t need to ask so many questions about City business and that I should just trust whatever the staff says. I then cited example after example of how staff members had lied to and misled the Council and the public over the years I had been on the Council, as well as my previous 5 years on the Economic Development Committee.
A couple of days later she sent me a letter saying that I had denied the City’s offer for accommodations and the conversation about my disabilities was over. I would not be accommodated. I had never denied anything she offered and it wasn’t true. My wife had taken incredibly detailed meeting minutes as taking minutes is part of her profession. Those minutes clearly and accurately reflect what was really said at the meeting. I responded with this information to the city employee and she never replied to me.
In addition to all of this, the employee who had made allegations against me for harassing her continues to make contact with me. She and I were both instructed not to communicate with each other. To this day I have not communicated with her once outside of an official meeting since the first week of December. She, however, has tried to engage me in conversation up to 8 times over the last 9 months. When I first returned to the Council, she kept making strong and suggestive eye contact with me during meetings. I complained to HR, who works directly under the employee, and the director of HR said she wasn’t going to do anything about it but I could move my seat farther away, so that’s what I did and why I now sit where I sit on the dais. I have documented numerous complaints to HR about this employee talking to me, almost all with witnesses.
If you can imagine, having a person who you once thought was your big sister and the best friend you ever had, completely turn their back on you and fabricate accusations against you, it was very traumatic to be around her. Especially while I was still recovering from mental illness.
After these incidents, it was clear to me that they were harassing me and were now discriminating against my learning disability. I spoke with three different local lawyers, and they all agreed this was what was happening.
The City ignored my complaints for months. I told the Council in detail what was happening to me, and they did nothing about it. They completely ignored and violated the very policy they’ve accused me of breaking.
On May 17th, I was admonished by the Council.
I have always acknowledged that I did develop a very close, mutual, and intimate relationship with an employee during a time in which I was deeply depressed over serious circumstances in my life. She became my primary source of emotional support during COVID while I dealt with my father’s suicide, and I couldn’t have gotten through that time without her. To this day, I’m still grateful for the friendship and support she gave me for many months. For an entire year after my father’s suicide, I literally woke up every day wishing I hadn’t woken up. And every one of those days she cared for me and reassured me that I was going to make it through my depression and not to give up. I cared about this person deeply and I would have never harassed her or mistreated her in any way. She was the best friend I had ever had.
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