WATSONVILLE—Watsonville City Councilman Lowell Hurst is being criticized for taunting a community member during a Sept. 8 virtual meeting.
Hurst in the video recording of the meeting could be seen patting himself on the back, mocking comments made by a Watsonville resident during public comment. Hurst also shook his head during her allotted three minutes and gave her a thumbs down gesture after she said that many of the longtime councilman’s recent comments have been “borderline racist.”
“This is not community building, it’s so freaking rude and dismissive,” she said during the meeting.
The woman, who asked to be identified as Elizabeth, ended her comments by saying “fuck all of y’all.” She did, however, return to comment on the council’s budget update later in the meeting, and said that they should invest more funds back into the community and spend money on community-building training for themselves and City Manager Matt Huffaker.
Hurst in an email said he “mistakenly pranked” Elizabeth by patting himself on the back in what he thought was a “self-deprecating” and “humorous gesture” after Elizabeth claimed that the council does not listen to the public’s criticism and only pats itself on the back.
“Obviously she didn’t see the humor and (she) unleashed what a racist I am in her eyes,” Hurst said. “Anyone who knows me knows that I have Mexican-born kids and Latino grandkids. To me that was offensive.”
His thumbs down gesture, he said, was a response to Elizabeth’s claims of racism and her use of profanity, though her expletive came after Hurst made the gesture.
Hurst said he has talked to his fellow council members and City staff about the incident, and said that he would be glad to apologize to the public about the exchange. He, however, did not offer a direct apology to Elizabeth, who has been critical of the council and City leadership in several meetings over the last few months.
“Even after being in the complaint [department] for decades I still slip up every once in a while,” Hurst said. “I am sorry the general public was exposed to such bad talk.”
Elizabeth in an email said she does not plan on filing a complaint against Hurst with the City even though she believes he violated the Council’s Code of Ethics and Values, a two-page document approved by the council in 2013—while Hurst was Mayor—that sets standards for the council and any appointed boards or commissions.
Specifically, Elizabeth said, Councilman Hurst violated the “Respect” clause that says, “I treat my fellow officials, staff and the public with patience, courtesy and civility, even when we disagree on what is best for the community.” Additionally, Elizabeth said, he violated the “Honesty” clause that says, “I take responsibility for my actions, even when it is uncomfortable to do so.”
“Overall Hurst was disrespectful, inappropriate and in my personal opinion, childish,” she said.
When asked for her thoughts on the exchange, Mayor Rebecca J. Garcia in an email said council members have “an obligation to listen to and respect all community members even when they criticize or attack us.”
She also said she asked Hurst to review and reflect on the recording of the meeting so that he could determine if his behavior was appropriate.
It is unclear if Hurst will face any repercussions.
Elizabeth was commenting on Huffaker’s City Manager Update. She said that the council and Huffaker have not yet responded to or addressed her concerns about how the City is keeping farmworkers safe during the Covid-19 pandemic and the heavy air pollution produced by the ongoing wildfires.
She has also raised concerns about the City’s transparency after it removed the chat function once available during council meetings early in the pandemic. Huffaker said the City removed that feature because it would have interfered with the public input and meeting process, and opened the City up to a possible Brown Act violation if items not scheduled or publicly noticed were discussed.
The City Manager’s office says that it has responded to Elizabeth and other community member’s emails concerning both topics. But Elizabeth said that Huffaker’s answers were “poor” and that he does not “further the conversation.”
Elizabeth said Deputy City Manager Tamara Vides and Garcia reached out to her through email a day after the Sept. 8 meeting, but Elizabeth said she did not want to work with the City any longer.
“Why would I? I have emailed them several times over the last few months and each time it leads to similar resolutions, none,” she said.