Brewer judged ‘intimidating’ in meeting incident

A legal consultant’s investigation of an incident at an Oak Harbor City Council workshop last fall offers insight into two candidates for mayor of the city.

The seven-page report concludes that Councilman Paul Brewer, the subject of the investigation and a candidate for mayor, was out of control with anger and went on a “physically intimidating tirade” at the Sept. 28 meeting.

“Mr. Brewer’s conduct was inexcusable for a public official in a public setting, and warrants official censure,” the report states.

In addition, the document is embarrassing for Councilwoman Sue Karahalios, also a candidate for mayor, and Councilwoman Sheilah Crider, who isn’t up for reelection this year. The attorney finds substance to an allegation that Karahalios and Crider had purposely provoked Brewer to anger and set him up for embarrassment, “perhaps for political gain,” the report states.

All three council members question the accuracy of the parts of the report which paint them in a negative light. Mayor Patty Cohen, however, said the document does a good job of describing the events and the interaction between elected officials.

“I thought it was an accurate report,” she said. “I didn’t think there was any kind of bias.”

The report described Cohen, who has endorsed Jim Slowik for mayor, as a fair and respectful leader. Cohen requested the investigation after two city employees, as well as Karahalios and Crider, made complaints to the city administration against Brewer for alleged workplace violence and creating a hostile work environment.

“My responsibility is to take steps to ensure that we provide a safe workplace,” she said.

The News-Times obtained a copy of the report through a public disclosure request. Attorney Michael Bolasina of the Seattle firm Stafford Frey and Cooper conducted interviews — ranging from 20 to 75 minutes — with the 15 people present and reviewed tapes of council meetings.

Bolasina’s fees were paid by the city’s insurance company as pre-litigation work, according to City Attorney Phil Bleyhl.

The “investigation summary” in the report described the incident during a study session on funding and setting priorities for capital facilities projects, a controversial subject in the city. Brewer was speaking about the issue and Karahalios interrupted him.

At that point, Brewer became “loud and hostile,” the report states. He shouted at Karahalios not to interrupt him. When Mayor Cohen tried to calm him down, he yelled at her for allowing interruptions and treating him differently than other council members. His voice grew louder as he spoke and he slapped his hand on the conference table.

Cohen eventually called a recess and Brewer uttered a profanity.

“Everyone at the meeting believed that Mr. Brewer was out of control and behaved in a threatening and hostile manner,” Bolasina concluded. “The description of his conduct can lead to no other reasonable conclusion.”

While Brewer did not strike or threaten to strike anyone, half of the witnesses felt he was angry enough to hit someone; some even felt an assault on Cohen or Karahalios was imminent, the report states.

Furthermore, Karahalios told the attorney that she felt physically threatened by Brewer and actually saw him cock back his arm as if to strike her. No other witness saw this particular arm movement.

In a recent interview, Karahalios explained that she was in a unique position to see Brewer’s arm movement that she perceived as threatening.

While Bolasina recommended that the council censure Brewer, that never happened. Brewer eventually apologized to city staff and his fellow council members for losing his temper and swearing.

Cohen and Karahalios said everyone was satisfied with the apology and with the fact that Brewer has controlled his anger since the incident. Others say they couldn’t discuss the reason for a lack of a censure because it was covered in an executive sessions.

In a recent interview, Brewer was contrite about the event, but at the same time claimed the report was “a little biased” and emphasized that others also acted inappropriately. Brewer and Councilman Larry Eaton met with Cohen shortly before the Sept. 28 incident to discuss Brewer’s concern that he was being cut off at meetings. Cohen agreed that Brewer should not be interrupted by other council members, but when it happened again, he got mad.

Brewer added that his elderly mother, who lives with him, had a stroke just before the incident, which was why he felt fragile emotionally. Karahalios said Brewer sometimes uses his sick mother as an excuse for acting inappropriately.

Brewer claimed that, before the incident, Karahalios and Crider had been working together to criticize and publicly embarrass him.

“They’ve been trying to discredit me for quite awhile now,” he said.

Brewer is not alone in these feelings. Bolasina writes that he and many others agree there is substance to Brewer’s allegations.

During a meeting last summer, for example, the council held a quasi-judicial hearing and Crider singled Brewer out for allegedly breaking the rules by having ex parte contact with a party, even though a number of other council members also had contact. Crider read at length from the Revised Code of Washington.

City Attorney Bleyhl explained that any violation was “cured” by Brewer’s disclosure. But Brewer became visibly upset at Crider and raised his voice. Cohen called for a recess.

“Though Ms. Karahalios and Ms. Crider deny any intention to provoke Mr. Brewer (Ms. Crider stated, quite incredibly, that she carries excerpts from the Revised Washington Statutes with her at all times), virtually all of the witnesses I spoke with held the opinion that the quasi-judicial incident was a calculated attempt to publicly humiliate and embarrass Mr. Brewer,” Bolasina wrote.

In another incident, a city employee reported overhearing Karahalios saying, during a recess after one of Brewer’s outbursts, that she had “got him.”

In recent interviews, both Karahalios and Crider reasserted that they never feuded with Brewer or tried to provoke him, but were just doing their jobs and speaking their minds.

“It’s nothing personal with Mr. Brewer,” Crider said. “I just disagree with his opinions and his decisions at times.”

Crider said she never told Bolasina that she carried the RCWs with her, but that she carries the Growth Management Act because she is a real estate agent. She said she had the RCWs with her during the quasi-judicial hearing because she knew it was an issue that was going to come up.

“I was elected to be educated and prepared on the issues,” she said.

Karahalios said she was surprised to hear that some of her colleagues felt she and Crider were “ganging up” on Brewer. She said she has no memory of ever saying that she “got him” and that it doesn’t make sense that she would say that.

“I don’t have any negative feelings toward him,” she said. “There was no concerted effort to make him mad. I just believe in good, clean, legal government.”

While Karahalios said she isn’t going to make Brewer’s temper a campaign issue, Crider said the investigation is relevant to the election. She said a mayor with an anger control problem could leave the city open to litigation from employees.

“I don’t believe you can use threats or violence as a method of controlling meetings or those around you who don’t agree with you,” she said.

Brewer said it was an isolated incident that won’t happen again.

“I would be more concerned when two politicians try to tag-team a colleague,” he said.

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