Allegations that a member of the Canby City Council, Shawn Varwig, visited a strip club while on a city-sponsored trip and driving a city van may be investigated for a possible ethics violation after the matter has come up at two consecutive council meetings.
Varwig has vehemently denied that he did anything inappropriate on the trip — saying the claim by Councilor Sarah Spoon was politically motivated — and is now calling for her resignation.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Varwig alleged Spoon manufactured the story as retaliation for his refusal to vote for her choice for council president, Greg Parker. Spoon nominated Parker for the position twice during a chaotic first meeting of the newly seated council on Jan. 6.
The votes for Parker split 3-3 along ideological lines, as did three other attempts to elect a council president, until an exasperated Mayor Brian Hodson finally cast his tie-breaking vote for Traci Hensley to end the stalemate.
During the last meeting, after Varwig had been nominated to serve in the role and after Hodson had directed councilors to share their reasons for voting “no” in an effort to break the deadlock, Spoon said she had a “very personal reason” for not supporting him.
It happened in September 2019, Spoon said, when she, Varwig and three other members of the council attended the League of Oregon Cities annual conference in Bend.
“I’m so sorry this has to be said; this is really uncomfortable and embarrassing, but it has to be said if he’s under consideration,” she stated. “He asked me if I would go to a strip club with him and I declined to do so, and he took the city van there anyway. I found it highly inappropriate, and I’m not comfortable with him as council president.”
“That is a false accusation,” Varwig said at the time. “That is 100% a false accusation.”
“I stand by my assertion that it was a false accusation,” he said of Spoon’s description of the events. “I did not invite Councilor Spoon to a strip club, and I did not take the city van there.
“Any extracurricular activities that I did participate in outside of the conference, on my own time, I used an Uber to get to. I took the responsibility of driving the city-owned van very seriously.”
Varwig claimed Spoon had called him earlier that day asking him to vote for Parker as new council president.
“She told me she ‘didn’t want our council meeting to turn ugly, but if I didn’t vote for Parker it would,'” his statement reads. “I was also told that ‘if I decide to vote for Parker, she will nominate me for chair of the Urban Renewal Agency.’ This is called quid pro quo, or a favor for a favor.
“Arguments can be made whether that is legal or not, but one thing I can promise you based on advice from my attorney and the Oregon Ethics Commission is that it is definitely unethical. It is dirty politics, and I didn’t want any part of that.”
Varwig then reiterated something he had said two weeks earlier, that he had not sought a seat on the council for status, popularity or to make friends, but only to do what he feels is best for the city of Canby.
“I refuse to be manipulated and bullied,” he said. “I urge all our councilors to dig deep and really consider the reasons why you serve on this council. If it is to play partisan political games, you should reconsider. Councilor Spoon has engaged in these games too many times.”
Varwig sharply criticized Spoon for her accusation, demanding that she “do the right thing” by retracting it — then resign.
“What she did was despicable, detestable and unconscionable,” he said. “It has shed negative light upon me, upon my family and upon the city of Canby. It proves that she is unfit and undeserving of the position that she holds.”
Varwig closed by thanking community members for reaching out to him over the past couple of weeks.
“It means a lot to me to have all of your support against something so divisive and so disgusting,” he said.
In a statement of her own, provided to the Current Thursday morning, Spoon did not back down.
“What I said in the January 6 meeting is true and represents a catastrophic lapse in judgment while Councilor Varwig was acting as a city councilor, away on the taxpayers’ dime, and representing our city at a professional cities conference,” Spoon said in the statement.
“I found this conduct relevant during the election of council president because I, and others, find the lack of judgment disqualifying for a position which acts as mayor when the mayor is unable. I thought the important vote should be made with all pertinent information.”
Since then, Spoon said, she has been “actively working” with Mayor Hodson to resolve the issue without embarrassment or expense to the city, and “so we could return our focus to the important issues facing our community.”
“Councilor Varwig was included in this process,” she said. “Unfortunately, Councilor Varwig does not seem interested in resolution. The mayor offered me an investigation, but I had yet to take him up on his offer because I was hoping to resolve this amongst ourselves.”
After Varwig’s comments this week, however, Spoon said she felt she had “no choice” but to call for the internal investigation to move forward. Spoon told the Current Thursday that she had reached out to the mayor about the investigation and also planned to file a complaint with the state ethics board.
“It’s the best thing we can do for transparency and with hope toward better council health for the sake of the city,” she said of the investigation.
Spoon said she was not surprised by the negative response some have had to her statement at the previous council meeting.
“It’s no surprise that when a woman holds a man accountable for their inappropriate conduct, women are met with rage, called liars, and falsely accused of misdeeds to distract and deflect from the truth,” she said. “It happens every time, without fail, and the certainty of cruel retribution is a primary reason women continue to suffer in silence.”
She, too, thanked community members for their support.
“I know I am not alone in being vilified for speaking the truth,” she said.
Earlier Wednesday, Varwig had been named chair of the city’s Urban Renewal Agency, with Hodson casting the decisive vote. Councilors Traci Hensley and Jordan Tibbals also voted in favor of Varwig’s candidacy.
A motion by Spoon to reconsider the vote — since it had occurred without the opportunity for discussion, contrary to the agency and city council’s usual practice — failed 5-2, with only her and Parker in favor.
Update: On Thursday evening, Varwig posted a comment to this story on the Current‘s Facebook page, saying he wanted to further clarify his actions on the night in question.
“I DID NOT GO TO A STRIP CLUB,” he said. “I did not take an Uber to one. I did not invite Councilor Spoon to one. I did not take the city van to one. I did not go to one. I did go out to dinner and drinks with some friends. That’s where I rode an Uber/Lyft.”
In response to commenters asking him to share his ride history from that night, Varwig admitted he does not remember which ride-sharing platform he used and that he had deleted his Uber account last year due to being hacked.
“I didn’t think I needed to keep detailed notes of the activities that I participated in on my free time,” he said.