What had been a conventional Washington C.H. City Council meeting for approximately 14 minutes Wednesday night suddenly shifted gears into a hostile exchange between two council members — with one of those members claiming that charges should be brought against Washington City Manager Joe Denen.
Following the legislative portion and moving into the miscellaneous portion of the meeting held in council chambers, council member Caleb Johnson — who later claimed that Denen has obstructed official business and been in dereliction of his duty over the past few months by not providing Johnson with information he requested — began to speak about his interactions with the city manager. Shortly thereafter, council chairperson Jim Chrisman interjected by saying, “Excuse me, we’re going to have it on the agenda at the next meeting. It’s not on the agenda tonight.”
The following exchange then occurred:
Johnson: “I thought this was the miscellaneous section.”
Chrisman: “It’s not on the agenda. And really I’ve heard all I want to hear today. Do you have anything else?”
Johnson: “I would, I’d like to talk about this.”
Chrisman: “Not tonight.”
Johnson: “Sir, I would like to not be silenced whenever, uh, things have gotten so out of hand that I actually had to request charges be brought forward for obstruction of justice and dereliction of duty.”
Chrisman: “Well, take a look in the mirror and you’ll see why things have gotten out of hand.”
Johnson: “Unfortunately, I disagree. And I would like to simply talk about this in open session.”
Chrisman said once again that it would be on the next meeting’s agenda, and then banged his gavel for emphasis.
Johnson persisted by asking, “What is the motion…to stop me or…?
Chrisman then gave Johnson a stern look and said, “Don’t push it.”
After more arguing back and forth, Johnson said, “I would just like to note that I do not agree with this. An attempt to silence a member of council when they have, when they have the privilege of speaking in the miscellaneous section is highly inappropriate.”
At that point, council member Kendra Hernandez, who was clearly irritated with Johnson, asked for permission from Chrisman to speak.
“It is highly inappropriate to charge somebody in front of everyone else without it being handled behind closed doors,” Hernandez said.
Johnson responded before being cut off by saying, “I tried long, I tried…”
Hernandez said firmly, “You have not because I have not heard of it until now. So it’s inappropriate, Caleb. And you’re not earning respect from anyone in this room by doing this.”
Johnson began to respond once again, and once again Chrisman pounded his gavel loudly on the council table. Chrisman called Washington C.H. Police Chief Brian Hottinger into the room in an attempt to put an end to the exchange.
When Johnson once again tried to speak, Chrisman angrily said, “I asked you to be quiet, you’re done. We bent over backwards to try to accommodate you and we just get more BS the longer it goes.”
“Unfortunately, I disagree,” said Johnson.
Chrisman retorted with: “Well I don’t care what you disagree about.”
The meeting then finally resumed and ended a short time later.
Following the meeting, Johnson, who was elected to the city council in November, spoke to the Record-Herald about his grievances, and provided a copy of email correspondence between himself and Denen.
Additionally, in an email provided to the Record-Herald that was sent to Mark Pitstick, city attorney, on Wednesday morning, Johnson wrote: “I have been refused a request for documents by Joe, who is bound by the City Charter under Article 4, Section 14 to provide documents. I have been intentionally obstructed in my capacity as a public official, as well as personally insulted in a series of emails. In order to uphold my oath to the people of Washington Court House, I am left with no alternative. In my capacity as one of the seven duly elected to Council, I respectfully convey to you the request I made to Joe Denen earlier for documents of which I was unlawfully denied; please ensure that this request is fulfilled.”
The email went on to read, “I would also like to formally request that charges be brought against Joe Denen, City Manager, for Obstruction if (sic) Official Business and Dereliction of Duty, or in the alternative, the attempt of the same. I will provide more emails as evidence tonight at the official meeting.”
Some of the information Johnson requested from Denen included an electronic copy of an “animal review board ordinance draft” and other documents. Johnson also expressed particular concern that Denen fulfill public records requests made by Derek Myers in a timely manner.
Following Wednesday’s council meeting, Johnson told the Record-Herald, “Suddenly, I went from not being able to get what I first requested in February, and of course today being the day that I emailed Mark Pitstick, suddenly they were able to produce what I requested. Unfortunately, the city manager has acted in a way closer resembling a dictator than a public servant. This is about dereliction of duty. This about obstruction of official business. This is about making sure that this information is available.”
Johnson added that he would still like to see charges filed against Denen. City officials made no comment about any potential charges Wednesday night.
“I think it’s sad that a government official has to use law in terms of criminal conduct in order to be able to get the request they made, especially when such a thing is required under the city charter itself,” said Johnson. “This is very serious and I also think, unfortunately, what happened tonight was a silence of me trying to expose this. People say the term, ‘good old boy club’ and the fact that they don’t want this to be out in the open seems like a ‘good old boy club,’ indeed if that term has any definition at all.”
Also following the meeting, Chrisman, who was still visibly upset, said that Johnson is “arrogant” and has been impossible to work with since he began his term as a city council member.
“He’s been putting out on Facebook that he’s the only one who’s transparent,” said Chrisman. “That’s BS. You can’t talk to him. Joe tried to work with him and talk to him. He just won’t listen.”
As for Denen, he seemed perplexed about what had just transpired during the contentious meeting.
“Most of it, quite honestly, is a little bit of a mystery to me,” Denen said. “I work for the institution, not an individual member. After the meeting, I approached Caleb and told him I didn’t agree or appreciate his characterization of me. I don’t hate him, I was just surprised. Nothing like that has ever occurred. This doesn’t change what I do or how I do it. You of course try to work with each and every individual council member. Again, it’s just a bizarre situation.”
Longtime city council member Dale Lynch expressed disappointment with what occurred during the meeting.
“In my 12 years on city council, I have not ever had the experience that the seven of us can’t work together,” Lynch said. “And it breaks my heart for us on council, but more importantly for the city that we have these problems. There’s been a lot of talk about transparency, it seems to be a favorite word. I have two other words that begin with ‘T’ that I think are much more important than transparency; one is truthfulness and one is trust. I’ve spent my whole life, my whole working life, which is now almost 50 years, trying my best to develop trust through honesty and being truthful with people. I think the main way that people find out whether or not you’re transparent is because they trust you….because you have built trust through truthfulness. And that’s what I would truly like for this council to do.”
Look for more on this story in a upcoming edition of the Record-Herald.
Reach Ryan Carter at 740-313-0352 or on Twitter @rywica