Temecula council offers support for protesters, condemnation of ex-mayor in first meeting since resignation

Temecula Mayor Pro Tem Maryann Edwards presides over the Temecula City Council's June 9 meeting, the first one since Mayor James Stewart's resignation over an email that many condemned as racist.

In the Temecula City Council’s first meeting since the resignation of Mayor James “Stew” Stewart over an email that was blasted by many city residents as racist, councilmembers largely asserted their support for the demonstrators who for several days had taken to the Temecula Duck Pond to protest the death of George Floyd, and some even condemned Stewart’s comments.

The June 9 meeting was also the first time all the sitting councilmembers could hold their meeting in person at city hall since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, though community members still were forced to watch online or on public access television.

The council meeting began with around 50 public comments — far more than usual, and many of them on the topic of the protests in Temecula and Stewart’s resignation.

Many commenters expressed outrage at the police presence at the first protest at the Temecula Duck Pond on May 30. Hundreds of demonstrators, many of them high school and college aged, had flowed into the park and the adjacent road intersection to join the thousands of other protests across the country condemning the death of Floyd, a black man, at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer. While the protest was largely peaceful — although some demonstrators were for a time blocking traffic — dozens of Riverside County sheriff’s deputies showed up in riot gear and declared the demonstration an unlawful gathering. Deputies shut down the intersection Rancho California and Ynez roads and began forcing protesters east from the intersection. While most of the protesters were ultimately allowed to leave unharmed, six people were ultimately arrested.

“Were you aware that there were families at the protest?” one constituent wrote to the city council. “Were you aware there were children at the protest? Were you aware there were moms, dads and kids in strollers at the protest? The city put a lot of innocent people at risk with the unnecessary show of force. I saw parents clutching their children in their arms. I saw a teen frozen in fear of what the police was going to do next. At no point did it become an unlawful assembly. At no point was anyone involved in destruction. The (show of) force wasn’t just strong, it was overkill.”

As constituents were still unable to attend the meeting in person, Temecula City Clerk Randi Johl was forced to read all of the comments aloud to the council. Another person wrote that what they saw at the protest “was a prime example of why these sorts of protests need to happen.

“While I understand that some individuals did cross into illegal territory when they began to protest in the street, the vast majority stayed within the permitted territory, including myself,” the person wrote. “The county’s officers came in with the goal of showing strength and decided before those incidents started that they were going to make a show of those protesting. They decided that that group composed of predominantly teens and young adults were thugs that needed to be policed and herded. It felt like officers wanted to intimidate protesters instead of protecting and serving them.”

At least one public commenter, who ostensibly submitted their statement prior to Thursday evening, called for former Mayor Stewart to step down over his email to a constituent stating that “I don’t believe there’s ever been a good person of color killed by a police officer” — which Stewart of course later did resign over.

While Stewart initially defended himself by saying the word “good” had been written in error while he was dictating the email, which he said he often prefers to typing due to dyslexia, some of the commenters did not buy his argument.

One called that portion of his email “an ignorant shortsighted comment that suggests extrajudicial killings of people of color are justified based on their skin color and the white perception of African Americans are dangerous.

“People of color are people, too,” that person said. “However, it seems that James Stewart doesn’t understand this given the callous and unthinking comments he made.”

The same commenter said Stewart’s statements were “insensitive at best and carry tones of white supremacy at worst.”

To be sure, while most of the commenters who mentioned Stewart condemned his email, one person did defend him.

“Stew’s comments do not bother me in that it was and should have remained a harmless error compounded by not-always-accurate voice-to-text technology,” one commenter said. “Stew’s dyslexic affliction and a nationwide pervasive outrage culture field by media glorification of all things even remotely perceived to be racist. You, (Mayor Pro Tem Maryann) Edwards bought into the outrage culture and showed a glaring weakness in the strength of your backbone and a shameful lack of resolve in accepting the resignation so effortlessly.”

That commenter said the Temecula community “would have rallied around (Stewart), but never got the chance.”

Since the June 9 meeting was held just a few days after Stewart stepped down both as mayor and from his city council seat, there was little opportunity to add discussions over that decision or how to replace Stewart to the meeting’s agenda. Councilmembers did, though, offer statements during the portion of the meeting designated for city council reports.

Mayor Pro Tem Edwards spoke first, discussing a meeting that took place earlier in the day between city leaders and some of the organizers of the Duck Pond protests, as well as the president of the local NAACP chapter and some local pastors.

“The meeting lasted for two hours, Edwards said, and it was just an open opportunity to have a discussion. “It was very cordial and very productive and long story short, it was unanimously agreed by the people in attendance that they thought these meetings should be conducted on a regular basis.”

Councilman Mike Naggar expressed support for those meetings, but asked Edwards to “communicate with the city council so that we can communicate what our concerns are so that if you’re representing them, you can accurately reflect them.”

Two councilmembers, Matt Rahn and Zak Schwank not only expressed support for the protesters, but explicitly condemned Stewart’s statements — a rarity for a city council that is typically very cordial in public meetings.

“I’ll start by saying I think the unfortunate words of James Stewart do not reflect the thoughts or opinions of the city council. I think we can all agree on that,” Rahn said. “Words matter, especially when our nation, our state, our city are experiencing so many deep and unprecedented challenges.”

Rahn continued by saying: “Being a mayor or any elected official for that matter demands a level of care in our communication that provides honest and qualified responses.”

Schwank said it was inspiring to see Temecula residents utilizing their first amendment rights by peacefully protesting, and said he was hopeful the current moment might bring about “genuine change.”

“We often prefer to put off hard work until a later date, kick the can down the road if you will, but I firmly believe that that will not be happening here. We saw that with former Mayor Stewart’s resignation,” Schwank said. “His actions and words have consequences. As elected officials it is our responsibility not only to lead, but to also represent.”

Both Rahn and Schwank came to the council with a list of recommendations for how to move forward both from the protests and the mayor’s resignation.

Rahn called for working with community leaders to find someone to facilitate a community dialogue; seeking a professional consultant for public communications in addition to the city’s existing communications staff; and developing a policy or resolution with standards of communication for councilmembers.

“This is not intended to infringe on speech in any way whatsoever,” Rahn said of that last recommendation. “It creates a standard and an expectation for ourselves so we all understand, and for future councils a reminder that we must always take this role seriously and conduct ourselves and our communications with the utmost care and integrity.”

Rahn also called for the city council to have media relations training; improving community relations with local law enforcement by continuing “coffee with a cop” and “coffee with the mayor” events that took place while Rahn was mayor; a resolution condemning the death of George Floyd; and reviewing incidents with law enforcement at the Duck Pond protests as well as the death of Matthew Tucker, an 18-year-old Black man who was shot and killed by Riverside County sheriff’s deputies in Temecula four years ago, and whose death was not widely reported at the time but was brought up by many on social media after Stewart’s email became public.

Schwank, who said, as a white man, it has taken him “years to try to understand what it is like to live in America as a person of color” and that he is “willing to look inside myself and acknowledge my privilege,” also called for community-level meetings and conversations.

“We need our families, our school districts, our faith community, civic leaders to all start meaningful dialogue,” Schwank said. “We need to formally apologize to our community and acknowledge their struggles. We need to focus on equity and diversity. Some of this we’re already doing and we should be proud of that, but we must press on.”

He also called for celebrating “our entire community.”

“Whether that means lighting up city hall or hosting diverse groups at the Old Town Temecula theater or community-wide festivals, we must embrace all of our community. To that end, I am hopeful and I believe our best days are ahead.”

Schwank also said city leaders must not only demonstrate that they are not racist, but that they are anti-racist. Rahn, during his comment, offered a nearly identical assertion.

“It’s more than simply saying we are not racist, we must assert that we are against racism,” Rahn said.

Naggar, who spoke after Rahn, said his comments were an example of “fantastic leadership.”

“The things that you have just recited speak for me,” Naggar said. “You nailed it.”

He said like the protesters, he was disturbed by video of Floyd’s death in Minnesota.

“We have not been able to meet as a council since the reprehensible and heinous killing of George Floyd,” Naggar said. “For me, I coil not watch it, and for me, it was straight-up murder.”

Naggar, Schwank and Rahn were all present to observe a protest in front of city hall on June 5. Naggar said watching the protest was moving, and said he will be doing “a lot of listening.”

“There may be areas where I don’t know what I don’t know,” Naggar said.

“I need to know more, I need to listen more, I need to find out areas where I’m not hitting the mark, so I can effectively participate as a representative of this city.”

Schwank, at the end of his statement, said he is “hopeful,” and that he believes “our best days are ahead.”

Edwards again spoke immediately after Schwank, and echoed her agreement with that sentiment, as well as the rest of the council’s statements.

“Good leaders are always learning, and we should never stop learning, and from other people, especially,” Edwards said. “And i think good leaders also accept that they don’t know everything, and good leaders do listen.”

She said she was impressed by the Duck Pond protesters, and valued the conversation she had with them earlier in the day.

“What we found today that everyone is on the same page and we’re eager to listen and we’re eager to share,” Edwards said. “And there’s value, I don’t even want to say on both sides — we didn’t have sides today, which was remarkable. It was wonderful. We just had a conversation about different experiences.”

The council at the same meeting also discussed its capital improvement program budget and a temporary dining and retail plan for Old Town Temecula as it reopens amid the coronavirus pandemic; Edwards adjourned the meeting in the memory of George Floyd

Will Fritz can be reached by email at wfritz@reedermedia.com.