Mayor warns public speaker to stop personal attacks

Published 10:37 am Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Matthew Simonson has called for schools to teach more of Benjamin Franklin’s philosophies, has railed against the Austin city government and has compared Hormel Foods Corp. to the National Socalist German Workers Party at government meetings for years.

He may not be able to express certain opinions at city meetings anymore after he commented on Mayor Tom Stiehm’s house burning down.

At the Austin City Council’s meeting Monday night, Stiehm told Simonson he would no longer be allowed to speak during the public address portion of the meetings if he continued making personal attacks.

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“I spoke to attorneys, and they said that we’re not obligated to let you make personal attacks against council members, staff, and other people and organizations,” Stiehm said. “I’m going to let you go tonight, but this is going to be the last time.”

Though Simonson can still speak to the council if he wishes, Stiehm said after the meeting that Simonson would be cut off from now on if he attacks individuals.

Simonson, a longtime Austin resident, is known for his speeches to the council, the school district and other government boards. He regularly appears at government meetings to speak on everything from the city to Hormel’s Austin plant.

That includes accusing the city of cozying up to Hormel while allegedly not caring for area residents, accusing Hormel of poisoning the city’s water, and recently accusing the city of doing little to help lower income housing.

The city allowed Simonson to speak for years until he accused the city of tearing down decent houses that could be used for homeless people during the Nov. 17 council meeting.

“The city seems to have a war against poor citizens,” Simonson said two weeks ago. “In this town, Hormel’s and private banks promote poverty upon a lot of the common citizens of this town and the city government seems to criminalize, almost criminalize being poor.”

The city has ramped up its enforcement to tear down dilapidated housing over the past year.

During his presentation, Simonson said people in the mayor’s neighborhood complained to him about the city’s flood mitigation efforts harming housing values. He appeared to take a shot at Stiehm, who lost his house, most of his belongings and his dog to a fire earlier this year.

“Some of [the mayor’s neighbors] were concerned that they might only get, quote, $10 for their houses,” Simonson said. “Anyways, they actually made a joke that they wished their house would catch fire so that they could collect the full value of insurance or something.”

Stiehm became visibly upset.

“That’s really stupid,” he said. “I’ll tell you that, that’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever said up here. If anybody’s house had caught fire, they’d think a little differently.”

Over the past year, Simonson has come into conflict with Stiehm and others during city council meetings. In January, Stiehm took offense at a letter Simonson gave to the council that depicted a Nazi swastika, which accused city officials of being fascists. Stiehm publicly rebuked Simonson at that time.

Since then, Stiehm and Simonson have occasionally argued during meetings.