By Shadrach Micheals
This piece appeared in the Ely Times on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. By way of disclosure, the reporter is married to the mayor of Ely. The Indy covered the initial controversy. That was when a council member said of a female applicant: “I think you would be a good fit up here on the council, but you probably have one of the toughest jobs in this room, that of raising a family, so I am wondering, no disrespect, do you have the time to really commit to this?”
Michelle Beecher is Ely’s newest city council member. Mayor Nathan Robertson had nominated Beecher, twice, in two consecutive meetings, first to replace Tony DeFeliz, who resigned September 12th, and again, after Sam Hanson’s resignation September 19th. The political road to get Beecher elected to the city council was a long and winding one, but the residents of Ely now have the candidate who endured an election campaign, discriminatory lines of questioning and multiple weeks under the microscope, to prove she is not only the right choice, but one tough mother.
Close to one hundred fifty people attended the September 26 City of Ely city council meeting, to participate in their local political process. Fifteen members of the local community spoke during public comment to Mayor Robertson and the four male members of the city council, and were then followed by nine letters that had been written and submitted to the city clerk to be read into the record, in response to The Ely Times’ September 18th article announcing the elected appointment of Ed Spear over Beecher.
In the week following the on-line publication of the Ely Times’ article describing the city council’s election of Spear, remarks made by council members, of which many perceived as sexist, produced a powerful reaction from members of the White Pine community and beyond. Responses to the story subsequently developed in the creation of an organized event group on Facebook, more than one hundred sixty online comments, and attention from multiple state and national news outlets, each one vetting the truth of the story, its reported facts, and audio sources, before advancing the story in their own iterations.
Stirring many emotions, the fallout from these events culminated in last Thursday’s council meeting, held at the Bristlecone Convention Center.
Ian Bullis led the invocation to begin the meeting, praying, “Thank you for the peaceful community we have. We’re thankful for the passionate community that we have. Holy Father, give us wisdom as decisions are made. Give us peace as we work out our differences and we learn from our mistakes.”
During the almost full hour of public comment, those gathered applauded and cheered each woman who chose to stand up and be heard. Ranging in age from 13 years old to retirees, the women and men of White Pine County showed up and brought the community together for a good cause. Sharing personal stories, sage advice, and stern scoldings, constituents spoke and the council members and mayor listened and learned some valuable lessons.
Addy Kerner, one of the first, and the youngest public speaker, demonstrated poise and wisdom as she represented future voters, “I feel like singling people out for raising a family shouldn’t be an issue. We should give people a chance at a job based on their merits and work ethic,” she said. Similar sentiments were spoken by all those that followed her in the queue.
“Our state is the first to have a female majority legislature, I live in a world where women have won Nobel Prizes, become Olympic athletes, manage giant corporations, led civil rights movements, held offices like governor and Secretary of State, and they accomplished all this while holding, as you say, one of the toughest jobs, that of raising a family,” said Jess Trask, a district school board member, rancher, masters program student, and wife.
Trask ended her three minutes emphasizing, “Women, like Michelle, are capable, intelligent, empathetic humans who would be nothing but a tremendous asset to this council, one that this city needs. If the people of Nevada can create a legislature that accurately represents its constituents statewide, then why can’t the small town of Ely, no disrespect.”
Lacey Balch, one of the coordinators of the “Tough as a Mother” group on Facebook that started an empowerment movement, highlighted the point that those gathered were there to find a resolution, “We are here for change. We are here to support. We are here because the actions of the council wronged someone that directly impacted each one of us somehow, and that is powerful.”
Balch earned applause saying, “I will not ask for the resignation of any councilmember tonight; I simply will look both of you in the eyes, and ask you to think very hard about the words you spoke and the actions you’ve taken over the past week, and to repair those spoken words. Do you feel whole? Do you feel like you did what was right for the city? Do you feel that you can look at anyone of us women in the eyes and ask if we can raise a family, do our job, water our grass, and serve our community; and not lose an ounce of sleep over it at night?… If your answer would be no to any of those questions, then I call for a public apology to the city of Ely, the women of White Pine County, and especially to Mrs. Beecher.”
Many speaking asked the council why the city did not have prepared questions for candidates that are standard, in order to prevent issues like potential gender discrimination. Janett VanCamp was one of those asking the men seated in their elected council chairs this very question. She went on, stating to the council, “You have done a great injustice to a big majority of the people who voted you into office. I am sure you know, when you get into a fight with a woman, they always remember what happened. These comments started a fight and it is a fight that will be and should be remembered at the next election.”
VanCamp ended her time at the podium with a warning to the council,“I want you to understand that these women, these superheroes, these ‘at-a-girls’ will remember what you said to one of their own; and I can guarantee that you will be voted out of office and a busy mother will be sitting in your chair. You will have no one to blame but yourself.”
The backlash to councilman Carson’s and councilman Alworth’s questioning of Beecher, a candidate being considered for the vacant seat 3 during the September 18th special meeting was addressed simultaneously by audience members also upset by councilman Flangas’ questioning of Beecher about the state of her yard, as well as the mayor’s own comment seeking more diversity on the council, since a Spear appointment created a council with a three-fifths majority being retired men, that some interpreted as ageist.
Amanda Hilton, General Manager of KGHM Robinson Mine, spoke on these issues during her allotted three minutes, saying, “The questions asked of Michelle Beecher were biased and borderline unethical. I was very surprised two councilmembers insinuated that Michelle Beecher wasn’t a worthy candidate because she is a mother. Another councilmember went on to question her about her yard. I cannot find a correlation as to how being a mother or not watering your yard negatively impacts your ability to be an effective city council member. Actually, I think that being a mother would be a great advantage because it brings a much needed perspective that does not currently exist on this council.
Hilton underlined her points, telling the council, “I am employed full time in this community. I believe it is vitally important to have a diverse work group that includes different genders, ages, and backgrounds. Diversity brings new ideas, different perspectives, and makes any organization stronger and more effective. In this council’s future appointments please consider the demographics of this community and work to ensure that those demographics are better represented.
This council needs more diversity so it can keep up with the exciting new direction that Ely is headed in.”
Ending her time, Hilton spoke directly to Robertson, “Mayor Robertson, you were given a mandate by voters of the city of Ely when you overwhelmingly beat your opponent. The voters spoke clearly that they are ready for the fresh perspective and direction you are providing. The councilmembers clearly did not take the results from this summer’s election into consideration with last week’s appointment and that is concerning. I strongly support you and your vision for our community.” To the rest of them she said, “Finally, I am a mother. The comments I heard on the audio recording were a personal punch in the gut to me. We are better than this.”
Speaking next, Dawn Graves, who attended the September 18th meeting and was present for the line of questioning that took place, began her time speaking about the The Ely Times’ initial reporting, declaring, ”There was nothing taken out of context but what the paper reported was correctly quoted and accurate.” Graves spoke further about what she witnessed in the previous meeting, “I believe this is a teachable moment. It is my suggestion that the Ely city council be required to educate themselves on discrimination practices and what is appropriate and legal to ask. I believe that when you know better you do better… Any council members unwilling or unable to pass such an education course should resign.”
Utilizing the rest of her time, Graves addressed councilman Flangas’ comments that Beecher’s yard was “disturbing”. Having had collected photographic aides depicting the state of Flangas’ own property, Graves presented them, to raucous audience approval. “Mr. Flangas, I have to ask you as to whether or not your ability to commit to the city council is based on the fact that you can’t take care of your own yard,” Graves asked over cheers and applause.
Rounding out the public comment, prior to the nine letters being read into the record by clerk, Jennifer Lee, Stefanie Woywood and Mary Kerner spoke to the council and echoed many of the overarching points of the night. Woywood, admonished the council, “Fellas, you know you screwed up, I can see it in your faces. I think it is amazing that all of these women agree that this can be a teachable moment. The biggest thing you need to understand is that this city needs you need to do better. You need to clean up your mouth and you need to clean up this town.”
Speaking about how the issues of sexism and discrimination brought the mothers in town together, Woywood suggested the councilmen set a higher standard, saying, “This is not the example we can set for my seven month old son. We cannot have our young men growing up in this community thinking that the words coming out of your mouth are okay.”
Above the applause Woywood generated with her invigorating speech, she drove home a hard question, “If the sexism continues, the b.s. on the lawn, and questioning women: ‘Why are you here?’ Step down. We’ve got new blood in this town. We have a new generation coming up in this town that’s tired of the good ol’ boy crap. Please do better.”
Kerner, also present at the meeting that caused the outpouring of support for Beecher, asked the council to explain their thinking and decision making, “My concerns are on the ability of this council; how do we ensure the community is represented, moving forward? These types of comments in community forums bring up deeply rooted issues such as discrimination, sexism, and community diversity. The lack of an apology shows your lack of awareness of how sensitive the issue of sexism can actually be.”
Speaking softly but powerfully, Kerner underscored the evening’s themes.To the council Kerner asked, “Did you know today in the United States, 100 years after getting the right to vote, women make up half of the workforce? Or that in 40% of families with children, women are the major breadwinners? Women are now half of the college students in the United States. We make up half of the medical students; half of the law students; and a fact I absolutely love, a few of the most recent classes of graduating NASA astronauts are 50 percent women.”
“If you cannot represent the whole then you shouldn’t be in office. I am a wife, a mother, a CEO; I sit on many boards and I volunteer. I cook. I clean. I make it to my children’s events and then some. I don’t judge you for not doing. Please don’t judge me for doing.”
The reading into the record each of nine letters provided the council additional emphasis on many valuable points. We encourage everyone to read each letter submitted’ time management, conflicts of interest, valuing each other, encouraging and working together being some of the main topics brought forward.
Following the end of public comment, city reports gave the council members the opportunity to speak to the attendees. Councilman Kurt Carson spoke first, “I’d like to thank everyone for coming out tonight. I understand that being a public official everything we say is up to everyone’s own interpretation. I wish I would have elaborated on my question to Michelle Beecher at the last city council meeting. When I was asking if she had time, I was honestly asking because I felt like our families are comparable in many ways.”
Carson explained, “Both parents work more than full-time jobs, life is hectic, and we truly enjoy our kids and going to all their events. I know that I have personally missed ball games, birthday parties, and one anniversary to fulfill my duties as a city council member. I would like to sincerely apologize to Michelle and her family and anyone else I did offend. I did not mean to do that.”
“I hope that my actions speak louder than my words. I fought very hard, for over two years, to try to help to get Jennifer Lee into the city clerk position that she is currently holding. I knew she would do a wonderful job,” Carson went on. “When Janette Trask left city hall, I tried and tried to get her to come back numerous times, because I knew she was and is a great asset to the city of Ely.”
Concluding, Carson said, “I would like to see the progress the city of Ely has been making in a positive direction to continue to move forward. At the end of the day, we are all here for the same common goal; to make Ely a better place to live.” Carson thanked his family and friends for supporting him during the difficult week, and thanked his wife of twenty years of marriage, Amy, “After this week, I don’t think I have ever been as close as I am to her as now; thank you, Amy.”
Councilman Flangas then took the mic to speak to the audience, “I’d like to make a comment because it bothers me so much, thinking about all the time and effort and all the exhaustion of work that I have done for this community.” While he then listed estimated values for the vehicles that had been shown in photographs, some of the audience turned their backs to him. Flangas’ rebuttal to earlier criticisms irked those listening, drawing scoffs and boos from the attendees.
Flangas defended himself saying, “I’ve had a significant illness over the past year and spending two and a half months in the medical center, my health has not allowed me to go ahead and do all the work that I want to do around my property.”Flangas continued by explaining that last year someone, supposedly, poisoned half of his yard allegedly due to displeasure over something he said. He added, “I began the construction of this convention center. And the Renaissance Village, if it wasn’t for me, would not exist, because it was I who went together with [indistinguishable]…” Flangas concluded, “I have worked very hard for this community and I don’t like to be berated because I’ve gotten older, been very sick, and can’t accomplish everything, but I’ve come to every meeting and done my job faithfully.” A member of the crowd then called Flangas out for not apologizing.
Jim Alworth, a councilman elected to his seat after defeating Beecher in a tight race in June, spoke next, saying, “I’d like also to apologize too, Michelle. I know how it is. I have two daughters, two granddaughters, three sisters; I come from a world of women. I understand the stress involved. I think a lot of what went out was not taken to heart. I love the females of this world, ya know, they keep us all going. If it wasn’t for them none of us would be here. So, once again, I apologize. There wasn’t anything in it that was personal. We had a good campaign against each other, and I came out thirty four votes more, but it was a good, tough race.” Once Alworth concluded his reports, the mic was turned to the speakerphone.
Mr. Spear spoke over the phone having called into the meeting, he explained missing meetings was due to preexisting medical needs and personal health, “I feel that a person’s personal health or that of his or her family should be a top priority and I certainly hope our future council person feels that same way, as well as everyone in that room. It was unfair to make a comment about my absence without knowing the circumstances.”
Spear went on to explain that he called in for this meeting, currently being in Reno for the twenty fifth annual Street Vibration Event, promoting travel for all the communities across Highway 50. He then listed all the ways he works developing tour and recreation, “I continue to spend many hours and personal resources supporting our community and our area. The city of Ely residents and taxpayers deserve and will receive my focus and commitment to work for improving our community, county, and state.”
Once the council’s reports completed, the mayor and council made a motion to approve the resignation letter of Sam Hanson and then brought forward a motion to appoint Michelle Beecher to his vacated seat. Mayor Robertson clarified the process for those that questioned the repeated nomination of Beecher.
Mayor Robertson said, “That was my nomination. As I stated in the last meeting where this happened, we are doing this in accordance with NRS 266 and in counsel with our attorney on how this is done. I know it’s been done differently in the past, and I know people have feelings on how it should be done, but I think we are safest doing it how the NRS prescribes we do it.”
Michelle Beecher was sworn in as the newest Ely City Council member on September 26, 2019.
The motion was called for. Councilman Alworth nominated Beecher for Hanson’s vacated seat 5. Robertson seconded. The vote to elect Beecher was unanimous. She will now fill the position until elections are held in November 2022.
The first item of business for action was for the new council to select and elect a mayor pro tem. Councilman Carson nominated Beecher for the position. Alworth seconded the motion. Beecher was elected mayor pro tem, unanimously. Mrs. Beecher got right to work during the rest of the meeting addressing city business.