Two Canby elected officials have agreed to participate in mediation in an attempt to settle a dispute that has disrupted portions of all three City Council meetings so far in 2021.
It all began at the Jan. 6 meeting when, during a protracted attempt to elect a council president, Councilor Sarah Spoon accused another council member, Shawn Varwig, of visiting a strip club in Bend in 2019 — while on a city-sponsored trip and using a city vehicle.
Varwig vehemently denied the claim at the time and, at the subsequent Jan. 20 meeting, accused Spoon of manufacturing the story in retaliation for his refusal to go along with what he characterized as an unethical “quid pro quo.”
Mayor Brian Hodson, in coordination with City Administrator Scott Archer and City Attorney Joe Lindsay, met with Varwig and Spoon on multiple separate occasions last month in an attempt to broker a resolution, but to no avail.
At the Feb. 3 meeting, Hodson revisited the subject, saying he wanted to gauge councilors’ support for two possible resolutions: one, to censure (i.e., publicly reprimand) Spoon at the request of Varwig and, two, to use city staff or resources to investigate the matter.
“I’m bringing this forward because there’s been an ask, and this is a big deal,” Hodson explained. “I’m not pleased that we’re in this situation. I’ve had a lot of comments and questions about this, and I by no means want this to continue any longer than it needs to.”
Varwig made clear that he had asked for a resolution to censure Spoon, and he invited the probe.
“I did,” he said. “I think it was incredibly inappropriate to make those accusations. It was a year and a half after the fact of when you’re saying this happened. So, yeah, it’s not true; it didn’t happen. I’m OK with any investigation because I’m on the right side of it. So go ahead, and investigate away.”
Varwig was so confident he had done nothing inappropriate that he reached out to the Oregon Government Ethics Commission himself and asked them to look into the matter. They were not interested, he said.
“They said they handle stuff that’s financial,” he said. “They did not want to take on this investigation.”
Spoon, who had previously told The Canby Current she planned to file a complaint with the state ethics board, did not revisit her side of the story. But she did suggest that if her colleagues chose to censure her, it should not be a one-sided action.
“I would remind people that Councilor Varwig also made serious accusations in his statement last week,” she said. “So, if I’m going to be reprimanded, it would seem his conduct in the most recent meeting was not really all that different than mine, and it would require a reprimand or censure of both of us in order to actually uphold the procedures and policies.”
Councilors Chris Bangs and Greg Parker said they were not in favor of censuring anyone — at least not until more was known about the events in question, both Spoon’s claims about what happened in Bend as well as Varwig’s allegations about the quid pro quo.
“I don’t think it’s possible to argue that Councilor Spoon was out of line in answering a question that the mayor really forced everyone into answering,” said Bangs, alluding to the fact that the mayor had, at the Jan. 6 meeting, encouraged councilors to explain their votes in an effort to break the deadlock.
“I think the line of questioning was unfair and put every councilor in an awkward spot and contributed to us spending an entire hour just selecting the emergency backup if the mayor happens to be sick. But Councilor Spoon was just answering the question.”
Parker had earlier said he also believed Hodson had been out of order in asking councilors to explain why they were voting against their colleagues and, indeed, Council President Traci Hensley had stated something similar at the time.
Other councilors appeared to be in favor of some discipline being directed toward Councilor Spoon, feeling that her accusation — true or not — had been presented in a way that was inappropriate and brought unnecessary embarrassment and trouble to Varwig, the council and the city itself.
“Yes, she was asked about explaining her vote,” said Hensley. “She could have simply stated she had a personal reason that she could explain to [Hodson] later and ended it there.
“Instead, she decided to build up to it, telling everybody how embarrassing it was going to be, and I just didn’t think that was behavior becoming of a sitting councilor. If we’re going to have a policy that directs us to not behave in such a manner, it should be adhered to.”
While acknowledging much of the frustration and awkwardness Bangs alluded to, Councilor Jordan Tibbals felt Spoon’s behavior had plainly violated board policies and codes of conduct requiring members to treat each other with respect and decorum.
“I’m afraid that, by doing nothing, we’ve basically said that [behavior] is perfectly acceptable,” he said. “If we’re saying it’s OK to air personal grievances or make false statements — whichever one it is, because I don’t know which one it is — if we’re saying that’s acceptable, then I’m afraid of what our council is going to look like for the next couple of years.”
He also disagreed the mayor had “forced” councilors to explain their votes, pointing out the board’s most senior member, Parker, had declined to do so and had not been pressed.
In response to the argument that she should be disciplined for violating codes of conduct, Spoon referenced a discussion she’d had during her meeting with Hodson, Lindsay and Archer, in which it had been pointed out how many board policies are “regularly violated,” like refraining from the use of personal devices while in session.
“And yet, I’ve seen almost everyone texting at some point during a meeting,” Spoon said. “So, there are a number of policies and procedures we have that are never enforced, and I think, to enforce some and not others is just as problematic as not enforcing any.”
Asked if a public apology of some sort from both councilors might be an acceptable conclusion, Varwig flatly refused.
“I will not make an apology for something I did not do,” Varwig said. “What I’ve asked you for, Mr. Mayor, is a censure for the quid pro quo — that I’ve told you I have the text messages for — which turned into retaliation when I didn’t agree to move forward with it.
“In retaliation for not going through with that, my name has been dragged through the mud, drug through the news, and terrible things have been said about me. So, no, I won’t make any apology for defending myself. I won’t.”
As the discussion passed the one-hour mark, some frustration appeared to set in, though councilors still seemed understanding and respectful of the positions of Varwig and Spoon.
“This is an awkward spot, because if Councilor Spoon’s accusations are true, I’d be really mad if I were her and were treated like this,” Bangs said. “And if Councilor Varwig’s version is true, I’d be really mad and upset.
“And frankly, I’m a little upset anyway, just because we’ve spent so much of the city’s time dealing with it already. But the rest of us, we don’t know, so we’re just operating in the dark and plodding around.”
While admitting “no one wants to be here,” and expressing his belief that all councilors would prefer to focus on the business of the city, Tibbals admitted he didn’t see how the situation would resolve itself without bringing the matter back for a formal censure discussion at the next meeting.
“I don’t understand the pathway to closure on this issue without putting something on the agenda,” Tibbals said. “It’s not going to fizzle behind the scenes. We tried that.”
But Spoon disagreed.
“One thing I think a lot of us have learned on City Council is you don’t always get closure and that’s OK,” she said. “Our job is to move forward and work with each other the best we can.
“And though Councilor Varwig and I clearly have different opinions on what happened and what our thoughts are on it, what we have demonstrated is … we’re able to work together professionally and have discourse over city topics without it holding us down.”
Echoing his agreement that the council could move forward, even without fully resolving the issue to the satisfaction of all parties, Parker said he asked a city department head this week about how the story was playing with staff.
“He said, ‘If I have a contract and I need to take it to council, I know that they’ll treat me fairly. They’ll be responsible,'” Parker recalled. “And that’s our job. We don’t have to like each other; we just have to show up and do our job.”
In the end, both Spoon and Varwig agreed to participate in a mediation process, which Lindsay said could likely be arranged without any cost to the city. If there is a cost associated, both councilors volunteered to cover their own fees.
Watch the full discussion from the Feb. 3 Canby City Council meeting below: