Washington Terrace council member facing scrutiny over election issue
WASHINGTON TERRACE — Blair Brown, a member of the Washington Terrace City Council, is the focus of scrutiny after allegedly pressuring a tenant in one of his properties to register to vote in upcoming city elections.
Brown’s efforts to prod Jarret Smith to register got so intense, Smith said, that he went into “protection mode,” worried he might get evicted over the matter. Smith, a tenant in a Washington Terrace duplex Brown owns, reached out to city leaders and the issue eventually garnered attention from state election authorities in the Utah Lieutenant Governor’s Office.
State officials, alluding to the charges as “allegations of voter intimidation,” took no formal action, instead kicking the issue back to local officials. After the issue popped up at the Washington Terrace City Council meeting on Tuesday, City Manager Tom Hanson said Wednesday that city officials were looking into the matter.
“We are concerned with the situation and are currently evaluating the appropriate response to this unfortunate event,” Hanson said. He went on: “Right now, to be honest with you, it does not appear to be criminal.”
Brown, who didn’t immediately respond to a query Wednesday seeking comment, offered an apology for his actions at Tuesday’s meeting, according to Hanson and others who were present. Brown, first elected to the City Council in 2011, isn’t up for reelection in November voting but has been campaigning for two other City Council candidates, Jill Christiansen and Nathan Howard. Election Day is Nov. 2.
Smith, meantime, worries nothing will come of the matter. “Pretty much nothing’s going to happen out of all of this and he’s going to get away with it,” he said.
John Jenkins, a Washington Terrace resident and Smith supporter, broached the matter during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s City Council gathering. Smith first brought it to light in a social media post on Aug. 26 and it had been the focus of simmering debate among some in the city.
“Just unethical behavior,” Jenkins said. “It’s something (Brown) should resign over.”
Smith said the pressure for him and his wife to register to vote from Brown started verbally. His initial responses, Smith said, were that he’d consider the matter.
“At first it was, OK, we’ll look into it,” he said. “Then it kept happening, constant nagging.”
Brown, Smith said, was campaigning on behalf of Christiansen and Howard.
Ultimately, Brown sent a text, saying he had checked voter registration records, accessible to the public, and found that Smith’s wife wasn’t registered.
“I thought you were going to support me after all the forms and stuff I have filled out and helped for you/What’s up,” Brown wrote in a text, according to Smith. Brown had helped the Smiths fill out paperwork to get federal rental support during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Smith answered, saying he would remind his wife to register.
“One way relationship,” Brown texted back. “I’m starting to think maybe you should move out.”
Smith said he felt disrespected by the message and worried that his family — he, his wife and their two kids — would lose their housing. That’s when he started reaching out, posting the Aug. 26 Facebook message.
In a statement, the Utah Lieutenant Governor’s Office, which oversees elections, acknowledged that it had reviewed the matter. Brown’s actions, the office said in a statement, could potentially be a violation of an election code provision making it illegal “for a person to induce or compel an individual to vote, or refrain from voting … by intimidation.”
Violation of the provision is a class B misdemeanor, the statement went on, but it typically falls to city or county attorneys to investigate and prosecute such matters. “The Elections Office has communicated with local prosecutors regarding these particular allegations of voter intimidation,” the statement concludes.
Shelly Jackson, deputy director of elections for Utah, said her office would continue monitoring the situation.
Brown, though he didn’t respond to the Standard-Examiner on Wednesday, expressed remorse at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, participants said.
“He stated, ‘I went too far,’ and he feels bad about it and he apologized,” Jenkins said.
Howard, the City Council candidate backed by Brown, noted low relative turnout in the city’s primary election in June. Around 1,200 of the 4,200 eligible voters cast ballots. Even so, he said Brown “probably was a little too aggressive with his attempts to get people to vote.”
Christiansen declined comment.