JOHNSTOWN −The final Johnstown City Council meeting for two recalled council members showed the deep divisions and bitter feelings in a community reeling from personal attacks within city government and unprecedented growth pressures from outside.
Council President Marvin Block and Mayor Chip Dutcher, voted out of office by large margins in last week’s recall election, showed up Tuesday for their last meeting. The pair remain in office until the Licking County Board of Elections certifies the election results on Monday.
The vote to remove Block was 77% to 23% and the vote to remove Dutcher was 72% to 28%. Council will have 30 days to appoint two new council members and will also appoint a mayor and council president from the seven-member body.
The meeting included the awkward scene of police officers trying to remove the wife of the former police chief from the speaker’s podium, threats to seek the recall of another council member and shouts back and forth from the divided crowd of about 50 people.
Former police chief Abe Haroon, his wife Judy, and former finance director Dana Steffan all spoke to council during the time for citizen comments. The spouses of the former chief and finance director called for Block’s resignation in February for implying the city employees were having an affair.
Block’s campaign tactics, the rest of council’s inaction against Block, and Councilwoman Sharon Hendren’s social media comments all came under fire from the speakers.
“I find it quite disturbing that Mr. Block is still sitting up here,” Judy Haroon said. “Literally right in front of our eyes we are continuing to bear witness to the good ole boy ideology.
“You all could have done the right thing and perhaps maybe suspended him from being here, considering the amount of chaos, mayhem and destruction to both our local government and community most recently caused by how he campaigned for himself, which was nothing more than a personal attack aimed at Dana Steffan and Abe Haroon.”
The Johnstown turmoil occurs as Intel Corporation prepares to break ground on the largest commercial development in Ohio history, a $20 billion computer chip manufacturing operation just a mile south of Johnstown. President Joe Biden will attend the Friday groundbreaking for the project.
An investigative report for the city stated Block violated the city charter when he attempted to intimidate or pressure the former police chief to get rid of a mayor’s court clerk/police dispatcher.
After Judy Haroon said she was going to move on to discuss Hendren, Dutcher cut her off, saying, “Excuse me, your three minutes are up. You are in violation of Section 509.04 of the ORC.”
In fact, Haroon had only spoken for 2:20.
When Haroon refused to leave the podium, the mayor said, “Can we have her removed.”
Interim Police Chief Rusty Smart and another officer walked up to the podium to remove the former chief’s wife, as the crowd expressed their anger or support for her removal.
“I demand that Sharon Hendren resign by no later than Friday, Sept. 9,” Judy Haroon said. “If you do not resign … you’ll be the subject of a recall in the near future.”
The former chief then walked up to his wife and convinced her to leave the podium.
Abe Haroon stated after the meeting that his wife will be filing a formal complaint against the interim chief and the sergeant for the threat of false arrest and violation of her First Amendment rights.
Before her exit, Judy Haroon said the city should develop a code of conduct for elected officials.
“No employee of Johnstown, nor any of its private citizens, should ever be subjected to this type of abusive, immoral and unethical behavior,” she said. “When you choose to violate those standards, then your feet can be held to the fire and be formally be disciplined as necessary.”
Steffan said she has been blamed for numerous things since she left office, all of them untrue. She said Block circulated a letter of lies about her as part of his campaign strategy.
“Marvin, you could have taken the high road like Chip and campaigned not to be recalled by stating the good things you’ve done for the city,” Steffan said. “Instead, you chose to spread lies about me and my husband. This is an obvious attempt to ruin our professional careers and reputations only to cover up your mistakes.”
Abe Haroon cited the turnover in city government, including the loss of the city manager, police chief, finance director, service director, city planner, and four city council members in nine months.
“You have nothing left,” Abe Haroon said. “Who’s running this city? Our government, the citizens’ government, has collapsed.
“We have time to heal. You have time to make sound moral choices. You have time to right the wrong. It starts with including us, the people, in your decisions. We are in charge. We set the tone. You listen to us. If you don’t, you’ll be removed.”
Dutcher told the chief, “Chief, you’re finished,” after he had spoken for 1:56.
The council clerk corrected the mayor, saying he had a minute remaining.
Following the meeting, Johnstown resident Todd McConnell said, “I think Chip Dutcher proved why he was recalled in cutting people short in their comments, which he has done previously.”
Dutcher did not address the election or citizen comments during the meeting and also declined to comment following the meeting.
Recall supporters had said the reason for seeking a recall of Dutcher was the widely-held belief that change is needed from the top down in Johnstown, and the city’s changing approach to finding a replacement for Lenner, who left as city manager Dec. 3.
Jack Liggett, the assistant city manager and utilities superintendent, replaced Lenner as the interim city manager. An announced search for a permanent city manager never happened. Last month, council removed the interim tag for Liggett, but set an end date of Dec. 31, 2023, for Liggett to serve in the position. A new manager will be hired next year.
Block suggested a seven-member committee be chosen to work with council on a healing process. A work session, which is a special council meeting, was scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Following the meeting, Block said he would not accept a council appointment to return but plans to attend meetings as a spectator.
“I still got a voice to say things and I got some experience,” Block said.
The former police chief said Donald Barnard would be his choice for mayor, but Barnard said he would not accept.
“It’s not something I’m interested in,” Barnard said. “I have two young children and a full-time job.”
Benjamin Lee, who left council earlier this year, would not rule out a return.
“I make it a point to never take anything off the table,” Lee said. “Situations change. Opportunities change. Everything changes, so I keep an open mind.
‘I agree that it is time to heal and time to move forward. I think the city will bounce back, no doubt in my mind. You’ve got a very passionate community that is well invested in its current state and future potential and not discounting the history that brought us here.”