LGBTQ groups want St. George leaders to take action against council member Michelle Tanner’s ‘reckless lack of judgment’

A communications specialist hired by Tanner read obscene letters at a city council meeting attended by children.

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune) Michelle Tanner, a candidate for St. George city council, speaks at an event in Washington City, Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022.

St. George • An LGBTQ group is asking St. George elected officials to take action against council member Michelle Tanner for her “polarizing rhetoric” about the drag community and the uncouth remarks her media manager made at last Thursday’s city council meeting.

Pride of Southern Utah is urging members of the community to write to Mayor Michele Randall and city council members to ask them about what they are doing to address Tanner’s “reckless lack of judgment” in allowing her media manager, Steve Brazell, to read aloud obscene letters and social media posts at last week’s meeting with members of a Boy Scout troop and children in attendance.

Hundreds of messages have already been received by the city council, a council member told The Salt Lake Tribune.

“I was absolutely shocked,” said Micah Barrick, executive director of Pride of Southern Utah, who watched the meeting online. “I just don’t think that’s very appropriate or professional language in that setting.”

Tanner has been a vocal opponent of drag events in St. George, including a segment of the HBO “We’re Here” drag series that was filmed last June at Town Square Park and subsequently led to the forced ouster of City Manager Adam Lenhard for not revoking the permit for the show. During a screening of the HBO segment in December, one of the show’s creators and executive producers, Stephen Warren, called it “a love letter” to St. George.

At last week’s meeting, Brazell, a St. George media and brand strategist retained by Tanner, attempted to counter Warren’s narrative about the drag community being all about love by reading aloud profanity-laced hate mail he said his client had received. After listening to several emails and social media posts peppered with “F” bombs and “C-words,” Mayor Randall told him to knock off the foul language.

Members of the queer community were quick to call out Tanner and Brazell for hypocrisy.

“In the presence of multiple young children, Boy Scouts, and countless other families tuning into the live stream from remote locations, he used the most profane language I’ve ever heard spoken in a public forum,” Pride officials stated in an online form letter they drafted for community members to use in expressing their outrage to municipal officials.

“I am shocked and appalled that Councilmember Tanner, whose number one talking point is protecting children from mature content, would find this kind of language in a public city council meeting appropriate,” the form letter continues. “I find it wildly hypocritical for her to continually target all-age, family friendly drag events while saying absolutely nothing as her hired media manager repeatedly uses the ‘f-word’ and the ‘c-word’ in the presence of young children.”

Brazell, the founder of the New York City-based media marketing firm Hitman Inc., bills himself on his website as a savvy reputation crisis manager for embattled politicians and business executives.

“No, you don’t always have to pay for your mistakes — you just have to manage them well,” Brazell says on his website. “We help celebrities and high-net-worth individuals maintain and grow brand value by managing challenging situations that could be damaging to their reputations and their bank accounts.”

One of the residents stunned by Brazell’s use of inappropriate language – especially coming from one who is ostensibly adept at media strategy and relations – was Katheryne Knight, who was at the meeting and has been a vocal critic of Tanner.

“The message Brazell was trying to get across didn’t match the delivery,” the St. George resident and LGBTQ advocate said. “He could have omitted the [profanity] in the posts he was reading, but I guess that is not what he was going for.”

Brazell could not be reached for comment.

In texted answers to questions from The Tribune, Tanner said she does not support the use of profanity in front of children.

“I did not have confirmation if Mr. Brazell would even be at the meeting or the exact words he would say,” she said. “I did not see any children in the council chambers at the time he spoke. However, I was made aware after that there were Boy Scouts in the overflow room.

“I wouldn’t wish anyone to have to hear the vile, threatening, and profane words directed at me from members of the LGBTQ community,” she continued. Tanner added that she was “grateful to see the community uniting against profanity in front of minors, including the new concerns from those who expressed no concern for the same words stated in front of children” during the filming of “We’re Here.”

Barrick said conflating the reading aloud of profane letters in a public meeting with what happened at the “We’re Here” drag show HBO filmed at Town Square Park is disingenuous.

“During the HBO filming there was one ‘F word’ said, and that was a slip of the tongue by one performer,” she said, adding that what Brazell did was intentional. “Whether it was [at Tanner’s insistence] or the media manager taking it upon himself, this was the intentional reading of foul language, knowing there were kids right there.”

Brazell’s remarks preceded the council members’ vote to renew the city’s sponsorship of the Downtown Farmers Market for six months. Tanner wanted to scrap the sponsorship due to co-owner Kat Puzey’s decision to allow a Christmas drag photo booth in her own private business, Mofaco, over the Thanksgiving Day weekend that was separate from the market.

St. George’s sponsorship waives park rental and other fees, which helps Puzey and market co-owner Ashley Tiller to operate their weekly event at Vernon Worthen Park and keeps booth prices low for vendors. Among other things, Tanner argued the waivers made the market a taxpayer-supported event and accused Puzey of misusing the sponsorship to promote inappropriate drag events.

Tanner’s focus on drag and other divisive issues has endeared her to some on the political right and outraged others who argue she is more interested in stoking the culture wars than in addressing traffic, public safety and other bread-and-butter concerns confronting St. George.

“Instead of bringing people together, she seems intent on tearing them apart and promoting contention and division … " said St. George resident Owen Johnson, who would like to see Tanner removed from office.

Utah does not allow recall elections at the state and local levels.

Justin Lee, former state director of elections, says there are no remedies to remove politicians except to defeat them in the next election.

“Short of the person resigning, there is really not much you can do,” said Lee, now director of government relations for the Utah League of Cities and Towns. “There is no real recourse here to get rid of a problematic elected official.”

Council member Dannielle Larkin said she has tons of mail from LGBTQ supporters expressing concern about Tanner and wanting city officials to do something about her rhetoric.

“A lot of them are using the template provided by Pride of Southern Utah and a lot of them are writing their own letters,” she said. “They are frustrated about the hypocrisy and saying [to Tanner], ‘You’re protecting children and then having someone read messages with foul language from the microphone at a city council meeting, knowing there are always children – whether they be Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts – coming with their parents or watching it on YouTube.’”

“We’ve had hundreds of emails supporting the farmers market and asking for truth and decorum in our city council meetings and from each of our council members,” Larkin added. “It’s so frustrating because we live in such a cool place and we can do so many amazing things. But look at how much time was wasted in that meeting fighting over something that shouldn’t even be a conversation.”

Council member Jimmie Hughes would also like to see more civility at meetings.

“There seem to be things happening in the meetings that sometimes get out of hand,” he said. “Frankly, the whole situation got blown out of proportion.”

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