Newport mayor resigns after protest over hateful Facebook posts

By Jonathan Levinson (OPB)
July 10, 2023 12 p.m. Updated: July 10, 2023 5:41 p.m.

The mayor of Newport has resigned after revelations he posted offensive messages about women, immigrants and the LGTBQ community on a Facebook group for current and former law enforcement officers.

Newport Mayor Dean Sawyer initially said the messages, which were revealed by OPB in a story Friday, did not reflect his true values.

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But on Monday, he announced his resignation and apologized.

An undated image showing Newport Mayor Dean Sawyer, who posted denigrating memes in a private Facebook group exclusively for current and retired law enforcement officers.

An undated image showing Newport Mayor Dean Sawyer, who posted denigrating memes in a private Facebook group exclusively for current and retired law enforcement officers.

Courtesy of Newport News-Times

The Newport City Council was scheduled to meet Monday afternoon to discuss responses to Sawyer’s social media messages. His colleagues on the council had criticized him for the posts.

Most of them attended a weekend protest at which demonstrators called for Sawyer to step down.

City council president Jan Kaplan is acting mayor until a replacement is selected.

On Saturday, Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” the 1978 anthem about personal empowerment after a heartrending breakup, echoed from a loudspeaker as more than 100 protesters marched on Newport City Hall demanding Sawyer resign.

The demonstration was organized by Newport Oregon Pride.

Protesters gather in front of Newport City Hall to demand Mayor Dean Sawyer resign on July 8, 2023 in Newport, Oregon. The protest came after revelations Sawyer had been posting hateful content in a private law enforcement Facebook group since 2016.

Protesters gather in front of Newport City Hall to demand Mayor Dean Sawyer resign on July 8, 2023 in Newport, Oregon. The protest came after revelations Sawyer had been posting hateful content in a private law enforcement Facebook group since 2016.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

In more than 40 posts spanning nearly seven years, Sawyer targeted a large segment of this 10,400-person coastal community, including women, immigrants, non-English speakers and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Kathy Redwine, who is on the board of Newport Oregon Pride and helped organize the protest, said Sawyer has surrounded himself with LGBTQ people and allies.

“It kind of gives the idea that he’s an ally,” Redwine said. “I felt like I got stabbed in the back. He was deceiving so many of us for so long. I don’t support anybody who has that kind of hate in the heart.”

Protest attendees rejected Sawyer’s claim that his private actions don’t represent his values. Sawyer apologized for the posts in an interview with OPB and called the messages juvenile.

Before Monday, Sawyer did not respond to requests for comment on the protest or calls for him to step down.

Rhonda Jantzen, an 81-year-old transgender woman, carried a rainbow flag and wore a shirt saying “You are the weakest link. Goodbye,” Jantzen said she’s been protesting for LGBTQ rights since long before same-sex marriage was legalized in Oregon in 2014. She said Sawyer’s posts sickened her.

“I’m trying to get Dean Sawyer to resign, whatever it takes,” Jantzen said. “It impacts me, and it brings back memories of when I used to be out here.”

A protester screamed “Mayor Sawyer! Gonna need a lawyer!” in the background as Jantzen spoke.

Eighty-one-year-old trans woman Rhonda Jantzen joins a protest in front of Newport City Hall to demand Mayor Dean Sawyer resign on July 8, 2023 in Newport, Oregon. The protest came after revelations Sawyer had been posting hateful content in a private law enforcement Facebook group since 2016.

Eighty-one-year-old trans woman Rhonda Jantzen joins a protest in front of Newport City Hall to demand Mayor Dean Sawyer resign on July 8, 2023 in Newport, Oregon. The protest came after revelations Sawyer had been posting hateful content in a private law enforcement Facebook group since 2016.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

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Next to Jantzen, Debra Fant referenced one of Sawyer’s posts joking about putting women in car trunks and said she was offended as a woman. Fant said she was also there because she has a transgender child.

“They have as much right to be in this world and to be treated respectfully as anybody else,” Fant said. She added that she hopes Sawyer learns from this experience: “I would like for this to be a pivotal time for him as a human being. But I think it would be nice if he would move on.”

Five of Sawyer’s six colleagues on the Newport City Council attended the protest along with two former mayors. Councilor Ryan Parker couldn’t attend because he had work. Councilors Cynthia Jacobi and Beatriz Botello declined detailed interviews but said their presence at the demonstration was a statement.

Jacobi said she wants Sawyer to resign. Botello, a Mexican immigrant, said she’d be speaking at a special council session scheduled for Monday afternoon to discuss the city’s options.

Speaking over a stream of supportive car horns, Councilor Dietmar Goebel said Sawyer’s posts are egregious, and he thinks councilors are going to ask Sawyer to resign.

“We need to get past the anger and to get into the healing process. The only way to do that is if Dean steps down,” Goebel said. “Dean has got to try to figure out what’s best for the city rather than what’s best for him.”

Councilor Jan Kaplan said the city has been hurt.

“If you’re going to reveal who you are, then you have to be accountable for who you are,” Kaplan said.

Kaplan said making fun of and ridiculing marginalized groups encourages others to do the same and that pushing back against such behavior is key to making people feel safe again.

Sawyer was a Newport police officer for 30 years. In a statement Friday, Newport Police Chief Jason Malloy distanced his agency from Sawyer and said his actions don’t reflect the police department’s mission or its officers.

“The Newport Police Department condemns racism, discrimination and other types of bias,” Malloy wrote. “Racism and bigotry are never to be supported or tolerated, and instead are to be identified and condemned.”

Lincoln County Sheriff Curtis Landers said he was “deeply disturbed” by Sawyer’s “racially insensitive, bigoted, and culturally inappropriate comments and posts.”

“Such behavior is completely unacceptable and has no place in our society,” Landers wrote. “I want to assure our community that this kind of behavior is not tolerated in our Sheriff’s Office, and I do not condone it.”

In his statement, Landers acknowledged Sawyer’s law enforcement history, writing that his actions reflect poorly on the profession and undermine recent efforts among law enforcement agencies to improve how they police their communities.

“Law enforcement agencies across the country have been making significant strides in improving community relations, fostering trust, and promoting inclusivity,” Landers wrote. “Instances like these serve as a stark reminder that there is still work to be done to address biases and prejudices within the law enforcement community and society as a whole.”

Protesters gather in front of Newport City Hall to demand Mayor Dean Sawyer resign on July 8, 2023 in Newport, Oregon. The protest came after revelations Sawyer had been posting hateful content in a private law enforcement Facebook group since 2016.

Protesters gather in front of Newport City Hall to demand Mayor Dean Sawyer resign on July 8, 2023 in Newport, Oregon. The protest came after revelations Sawyer had been posting hateful content in a private law enforcement Facebook group since 2016.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Sunday morning, the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners — which includes Claire Hall, a transgender woman — followed Landers with their own statement.

“The exposure of Mayor Sawyer’s bigoted online commentary makes it harder for those vulnerable people to feel safe or to seek assistance and protection from their local government,” the commissioners wrote. “This is unacceptable.”

Speaking directly to impacted members of the community, the commissioners wrote, “You are a valued, irreplaceable part of this community. You have a place here. Hatred does not.”

Before Sawyer announced his intent to resign, the Newport City Council, which includes six councilors and Sawyer as mayor, had limited options. Sawyer’s actions didn’t rise to a level that would force him out of office under the city charter, such as moving out of the city or being incarcerated. Short of a public recall petition that would put his future on the ballot, all councilors could have done was urge Sawyer to resign. Otherwise, LGBTQ+ activist and City Councilor CM Hall said, people will think Sawyer’s comments reflect the city.

“We have to stop it,” she said. “He needs to resign.”

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