Snohomish councilmen catch flak over e-mails

SNOHOMISH — Snohomish City Councilmen Doug Thorndike and R.C. “Swede” Johnson are getting a crash course about the power of signs.

A debate on whether to build new signs to welcome people to Snohomish has instead turned into a controversy over an e-mail message the two council members sent to their colleagues.

Included in the e-mail message was a computer-generated image of road signs that some say are disrespectful to Mexican immigrants.

The image shows a road running toward the Statue of Liberty, flanked by two signs. One reads: “Leaving Mexico. Entering Meximerica.” The other: “Welfare Dept. (1/4 MI), Social Security (3/4 MI), Free Medical (1 1/4 MI).

Nobody has suggested similar signs for Snohomish, and Johnson said he meant no offense in e-mailing the image to other council members.

“This was an example of what a sign can do. And apparently someone took it out of context and ran with it,” he said.

Thorndike declined to comment.

The image is discriminatory, Snohomish resident John First said at a City Council meeting Tuesday where the e-mail was discussed.

“I was embarrassed that it was being circulated by council members,” said First, 49. “I was upset to see it because of the message that it implies.”

About a dozen people at the meeting commented on the image, most saying it was offensive and inappropriate.

Kirk Williams, 50, of Snoho­mish said he thought the image similar to political cartoons in newspapers and said it raised a legitimate point of view about U.S. immigration issues.

“It’s not that these people don’t like Hispanics,” Williams said of Johnson and Thorndike. “These men aren’t like that.”

Snohomish has a history of controversy involving signs and e-mail. In June, the city successfully defended itself in a federal lawsuit that stemmed from the yearslong controversy over its handling of a restaurant’s mural depicting pigs.

A former police chief resigned from his job in late 2006 after he was caught sending computer messages to an officer he supervised, professing romantic interest.

The e-mail creating a stir now was sent about a month ago by Thorndike to Johnson, who forwarded it to City Council members Karen Guzak and Melody Clemans. The four had been discussing options for creating new gateway signs to attract tourists to Snohomish.

City officials have debated the signs since 2004. Guzak, a local artist, submitted designs for consideration before she joined the City Council. The project stalled, but Guzak brought it up again earlier this year after she took office.

Johnson is a long-time elected official in Snohomish, having served on the Snohomish School Board for a decade and four years as a Snohomish County councilman before joining the City Council in 2006. Johnson said he is against building gateway signs for Snohomish, and believes the city already has spent too much time and money on the project.

Clemans said that the image contained in the e-mail offended and upset her.

“Perhaps a bad joke? It’s a very bad way to make a point,” Clemans said. She added that she hopes the controversy may serve as a reminder to value diversity.

Guzak said that new signs for Snohomish should encourage people to visit the town.

“It was a slap in the face for our Hispanic community. That’s unfortunate,” she said of the e-mail.

About 43,700 people of Hispanic origin live in Snoho­mish County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s 6.5 percent of the county’s total population.

Snohomish had 330 people of Hispanic origin during the 2000 census. That was about 4 percent of the city’s entire population of 8,494.

Just a few miles east on U.S. 2, the city of Monroe has about 10 percent people of Hispanic origin, including many Mexican immigrants. In 2000, that was more than 1,300 people.

The Rev. Michael OBrien ministers to about 900 families at St. Mary of the Valley Catholic Church in Monroe. About half of the parishioners are of Hispanic origin, and the church conducts Spanish-language services, ­OBrien said.

He hasn’t seen the image e-mailed by Johnson and Thorndike, but said it didn’t sound very welcoming.

“I’d say it’s inappropriate,” he said. “Unfortunately there are people who are doing inappropriate things. It’s part of the current climate in the area of immigration issues.”

Thorndike and Johnson demonstrated insensitivity to others in distributing the image, Mark Hintz told City Council members Tuesday night. He works in Snohomish as a mortgage broker and also is chairman of the Snohomish County Democratic party.

“This is no way for an American to treat another American,” Hintz said.

Reporter Yoshiaki Nohara: 425-339-3029 or ynohara@heraldnet.com.

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