Alderman resigns after accusing mayor of ‘witch hunt’ against Blair police chief

A few weeks after accusing the city of Blair’s “administration” of conducting a “witch hunt” against city Police Chief Kent Johnson, First Ward alderman Dennis Stephenson resigned from his post.

Stephenson submitted his resignation prior to the council’s May 2 meeting. The decision came after he accused Mayor John Rawson of trying to fire the city police chief at the April 19 reorganizational meeting. Stephenson questioned Rawson’s decision to remove Chris Ekern from the police and ordinance committee, which Ekern previously chaired.

“It is my belief that the administration of this city is pursuing a witch hunt to remove or make it easier to remove the city of Blair’s police chief by removing Chris from the police and ordinance committee,” Stephenson said. “My basis for this: I believe there are certain council members and the mayor that are stacking this committee to get a dismissal of our chief.”

Stephenson recommended that Ekern be placed back on the committee, but the mayor’s appointments were ultimately approved 4-3 with Rawson breaking a council tie. Terry Wheeler, Paul Syverson and Jill Anderson all voted to approve Rawson’s recommendations; Stephenson, Ekern and Jeremy Tranberg voted against.

When asked in an interview with the Times why Ekern was removed from the committee Rawson said that he was “trying to change people around like other towns do.”

“It don’t matter, the mayor can change people around,” Rawson said.

Rawson noted issues with the police department, specifically referencing a complaint that was filed against Johnson by city officer Kim Potts. That complaint led to Rawson suspending Johnson for two months, but it was eventually rescinded and Johnson returned to duty in late March. 

Rawson later admitted that the situation with Johnson and Potts “doesn’t have much to do” with Ekern.

“We decided to move people around to see what happens,” Rawson said.

When asked again why Ekern was the only returning member of the council removed from any committee, Rawson declined to comment.

In an interview with the Times, Ekern said he was never given a reason for his removal and that Rawson never expressed an issue with his work on the committee.

Rawson said he would “probably” put Ekern back on the committee after Stephenson’s resignation. Stephenson was appointed to the committee along with Tranberg and Wheeler.

During the April 19 meeting, Stephenson noted several items on the April 11 agenda related to making changes such as hiring an assistant police chief, changing the chief’s working hours and changes to the police and fire commission. Stephenson said he asked why those topics were placed on the agenda since they had not yet gone through the committee.

“With the exception of being told that Mayor Rawson put the work hours policy on the agenda, no other response was given,” Stephenson said.

Another issue Stephenson brought up was what he believed to be an intentional error that prevented the police and ordinance committee from meeting.

At first, Stephenson said the request for the committee meeting was denied by Rawson. Rawson told the Times he denied the request because one of the committee members, Mike Lisowski, did not seek reelection in April. Stephenson noted, however, that Lisowski was still considered a member of the council until his replacement was sworn in at the reorganizational meeting.

When the meeting was eventually approved, Stephenson said the date placed on the agenda was Christmas Day, Dec. 25, 2022. 

“I believe this was done intentionally to not have the meeting or to trap the committee into holding an illegal meeting,” Stephenson said. “Not humorous at all. It’s offensive. No respect or regard toward the committee.”

Clerk Susan Frederixon said it was a clerical error.

“Christmas day, that sounds funny, it’s not funny,” Frederixon said. “I did not do that intentionally.”

“I’m not buying it,” Stephenson responded. 

Stephenson noted the legal fees that he believes are going toward attempting to remove Johnson.

“As of April 8, we have spent almost 73 percent of our annual legal fees budget,” Stephenson said. “I suspect this is due to trying to fire Chief Johnson.”

Stephenson said that he feared the way Johnson had been treated could open the city up to a lawsuit. 

In addition to being reelected to the council on April 5, fellow council members unanimously approved Stephenson as the president.

In his letter of resignation, Stephenson said he wanted to enjoy his retirement.

Rawson is in charge of appointing a replacement for Stephenson, but his selection requires council approval.

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