City Council convened virtually in a special session Wednesday afternoon to hold an ethics hearing for Councilmember Jeff Hayner, D-Ward 1, who quoted the N-word in an interview with Samuel J. Robinson, a Black MLive reporter, in May.
Following the hearing, the council passed a resolution sponsored by Councilmember Julie Grand, D-Ward 3, to reprimand Hayner for violating Council Ethics Rule 13, which states that councilmembers should “avoid the use of derogatory (or) denigrating language.”
Hayner decided not to use allotted time to present witnesses and evidence during the hearing, explaining that he did not view the hearing as necessary.
“My use of language outside of this body is none of this body’s business … I said it in a very certain context, in a very certain way, with another adult,” Hayner said. “Somehow, that is the big disaster we have here in our community. It’s not about our poisoned water, our COVID epidemic, our crumbling roads, our structural deficit, it’s about ‘Jeff said a word in a phone call.’”
During his closing statement, Hayner defended his use of the N-word, claiming that it was not wrong because of the context of the conversation he was having with Robinson and because he did not mean to use it in a derogatory manner.
“In some communities and social groups, (the N-word is) practically a pronoun,” Hayner said.
The hearing quickly concluded after Grand read her complaint and Hayner decided not to use his time. The council then debated the proposed resolution to reprimand Hayner.
Councilmember Kathy Griswold, D-Ward 2, proposed an amendment to strike the clause from the resolution that states, “the presence of a Councilmember who voices racial slurs creates harm to the community, distances community members from their government, and degrades the efficacy of local government.”
During debate on the amendment, Griswold and Councilmember Elizabeth Nelson, D-Ward 4, both said they felt Hayner’s speech caused minimal harm, making it unnecessary to reprimand him.
“The repetition and the reframing of this in a very political way has certainly caused a different kind of harm than the actual conversation,” Nelson said. “We’ve not heard any evidence of the conversation itself causing harm.”
Grand disagreed, stating that the use of the N-word by someone who is not Black in any context is inappropriate.
“It’s not up to those who’ve been harmed and are most marginalized to have to stand up to someone who puts them in a position of harm, and have to explain … why they were harmed, or why that word was offensive,” Grand said. “That’s not an education that needs to happen at this hearing. I find it somewhat shocking that certain members of this body find that our reaction to this is more problematic than the act itself.”
Councilmember Jen Eyer, D-Ward 4, also countered Nelson’s claim that Hayner’s speech had not caused harm to the community.
“We haven’t heard any testimony here, but we’ve received many, many emails as a body from people in our community who expressed that they felt that there was harm from this language,” Eyer said. “(Community members) feel distanced from their government because of it.”
In response, Hayner claimed he had not received any emails of disapproval from community members in reference to his use of the N-word.
“I’m struggling to recall receiving one email from anyone saying ‘shame on you for saying this,’” Hayner said. “I’m having a hard time believing that there was an outpouring of anguish in our community.”
Hayner received multiple emails from community members expressing concern regarding his quoting of a homophobic slur, according to communications made public through a FOIA request in May. It is not immediately clear whether Hayner also received emails from constituents related to his quoting of the N-word.
Ward 1 resident Luis Vasquez emphasized during public comment that he has reached out to councilmembers with concerns about Hayner’s language, despite Hayner and Nelson’s claims that they haven’t seen the speech cause harm in the community.
“Contrary to some councilmembers’ statements that they have not heard from their constituents, I have sent emails to all of you regarding this issue with Councilmember Hayner,” Vasquez said.
After much debate, Griswold’s amendment failed 9-1, with Hayner abstaining and Griswold voting in support.
Following the vote, the council moved to vote to reprimand Hayner for his use of derogatory language in violation of Council Ethics Rule 13.
Councilmember Linh Song, D-Ward 2, addressed Hayner, reading statements from community members who felt harmed by Hayner’s speech, and stressed that councilmembers must be held to a high standard and act as allies to marginalized communities.
“I think this conversation would be entirely different if we actually had a Black city councilmember at this table,” Song said.
Griswold said she believes Hayner did not have the intention of offending Robinson or any other community members, and therefore his use of the N-word should not be considered a slur.
“There’s nothing worse than affluent, righteous, intellectual, white people playing the race card for their own political advantage,” Griswold said. “I believe that a slur means that you are targeting a person — that is not what happened. This was a discussion about some words, not the use of a word to denigrate or to attack an individual.”
Councilmember Lisa Disch, D-Ward 1, emphasized to her colleagues the importance of understanding the history behind the N-word.
“The word carries the weight of that history, and it is a word that many Black academics feel that white people should not use, and it’s a word that I think that white leaders should not use,” Disch said. “We are not just speaking for ourselves, we’re speaking for those who have chosen us to represent them. As representatives, we have to be more watchful about our speech and more careful about our tone.”
Councilmember Travis Radina, D-Ward 3, said he believes the council has a responsibility to stand up against Hayner’s speech to repair harm done to the community.
“For me, this is easy,” Radina said. “It is language that is inappropriate in all contexts. When hate speech is used, often the answer to that is more speech, and that is what this body can do by passing this reprimand and saying that this speech is unacceptable.”
Song echoed Radina’s sentiment that reprimanding Hayner sends a strong message to the community that the council will not stand for harmful speech.
“Allow me to propose the idea that Councilmember Hayner is not the victim of his own choices and words that he uses, and that he actually has choices,” Song said. “We have choices to uplift communities, to inspire communities — this is an incredible language. So I welcome this opportunity to demonstrate care for our community.”
In response to Nelson’s claim that the council had devoted too much time to discussing the discipline of Hayner, Mayor Christopher Taylor said Hayner’s speech required action.
“The notion that we, as a council … don’t spend time focusing on the people’s business is simply not true,” Taylor said. “It’s regrettable because it’s shocking that a councilmember should have uttered speech that gives rise to the necessity of addressing these issues.”
The resolution to reprimand Hayner passed 7-3, with Hayner abstaining and Councilmembers Griswold, Nelson and Ali Ramlawi, D-Ward 5, voting in opposition. A formal reprimand requires 7 votes to pass, according to Council Ethics Rule 12.
The hearing comes after an effort to recall Hayner failed to receive enough petition signatures by a July 30 deadline. The recall effort was initiated after Hayner quoted a homophobic slur on Facebook in April.
Hayner’s seat will be up for election in November 2022.