Allegations fly at Johnstown council meeting after another resignation

JOHNSTOWN — The Johnstown City Council meeting Tuesday night included more of what has become commonplace in the city: allegations and counter allegations following another resignation and another executive session to discuss an employee.

Beginning Dec. 3, Johnstown’s city manager, finance director, a police officer and two council members have resigned. The police chief was fired. Two other council members, including the mayor, may be subject to a recall election later this year.

Anya Arciaga, of Columbus, read a statement to council from Johnstown resident Elizabeth Whipple, whom Arciaga said could not attend the meeting because she is at home with her family in COVID quarantine.

“Strong-arming, backroom-dealing, making fellow community members’ work life so unbearable they leave — and it’s more than just the prior chief and finance director — isn’t acceptable anywhere at any time,” Whipple wrote. “And certainly not for a small town staring down massive changes.”

The changes alluded to come from the Intel Corporation, which on Jan. 21 announced plans to build a $20 billion computer chip manufacturing facility a few miles south of Johnstown on Jersey Township land to be annexed into New Albany. The company expects to hire 3,000 employees, and the project is expected to create 7,000 construction jobs and 10,000 indirect jobs in what could be the first part of a $100 billion investment.

City Council President Marvin Block responded to questions about the city being distracted and unprepared for Intel.

“I think everybody on this panel has been to several meetings, trying to get up to speed,” Block said. “We just found out about this the first of the year. It took us all by surprise. We’ve all worked hard trying to make it work. I don’t know what else we could do.”

Johnstown, which became a city in October, has promoted its utilities director to city manager, hired an assistant city manager, promoted its deputy police chief to interim chief, swore in two new council members, moved the mayor’s court clerk/dispatcher to police officer and plans to hire an additional police officer.

More: Investigative report reveals discord, disfunction in Johnstown government

At the meeting, two residents asked questions, expressed concerns and disgust with their leaders, especially those who might face a recall — City Council President Marvin Block and Mayor Chip Dutcher. Block lashed out at his accusers, including former Police Chief Abe Haroon, who made recordings of his conversations with Block. And, councilwoman Sharon Hendren defended her social media comments she saw some as a threat.

An investigative report for the city stated Block attempted to intimidate or pressure the now fired police chief to get rid of a mayor’s court clerk/police dispatcher, in violation of the city charter. The same report said Block did not spread false rumors of an affair between the former police chief and Finance Director Dana Steffan, but former councilwoman Cheryl Robertson said, “You alluded to it, Marvin.”

Whipple’s wrote in her statement, “To say that I’ve been disgusted at the behavior evidenced in reports of audio recordings is putting it mildly. To then realize that Marvin’s behavior is nothing new and other members of council and especially you, Mayor Dutcher, have stood by and done nothing left me speechless.”

Steffan submitted her resignation, effective July 1. Dutcher declined to comment on the loss of the city’s finance director. Block said only “it’s not printable,” when asked for a comment on her resignation from her.

Block said he has documents proving his points and, “I’ll make copies of these and pass them out all over town.” He also said he plans to file several grievances against city employees.

“I’ve sat up here since Feb. 15 and taken your guff, slander, comments, everything you say about me, everything you said on Facebook,” Block said. “I’ve been advised by two attorneys who work for the village and the HR department to keep quiet to save a lawsuit. Well, I’m not keeping quiet anymore.”

Block attacked Haroon on the purchase of a drone, which was one of the stated reasons City Manager Jack Liggett fired the chief, as well as terminating police dispatchers, giving a raise to a clerk and instituting a monthly officer quota for writing moving and parking violations .

“I got blamed for getting rid of the dispatchers,” Block said. “I’ve got an item right here, signed by the chief, to eliminate the dispatchers. It was brought before council. I have made the proposal. He offered one of the girls (a clerk) $800 to $1,000 to stay on until the end of the year, but he didn’t have authorization to do that. Council eventually paid it because they felt sorry for the girl. Nowhere in the budget can you tell that there was money put away for the drone.”

Block released a Jan. 6 document from Haroon to his patrol officers stating there would be new mandatory traffic enforcement metrics that required each officer to write citations for seven moving violations and two parking violations per month.

The Advocate was unable to obtain an immediate response from Haroon before today’s deadline.

Block also attacked Aaron Steffan, the finance director’s husband, for selling a life insurance policy to Jim Lenner, the former city manager, in late 2019.

“Her husband sold an insurance policy to the village of Johnstown,” Block said. “We were advised by a staff member that it was OK to do it because it’s done all the time. It’s against the handbook and it’s also against the state of Ohio’s practices.”

Aaron Steffan said Block initiated the insurance discussion and wanted Steffan to provide insurance policy quotes to Lenner as an added bonus for the city manager.

“It was all his idea,” Aaron Steffan said. “He was spearheading this whole thing.”

Jamie Hartsough, a Johnstown resident who recently spoke out in favor of the recall effort, asked questions of city officials in attending her first council meeting.

After giving her name and address once, Block asked for it again. When the major said, “we have it,” Block replied, “I need it for my attorney.”

Hartsough said, “I had already stated it, so I don’t know why I had to restate it. I don’t know why that had to be announced to the public, as a way to intimidate me.”

Bob Gose, a Johnstown resident at the meeting, blurted out “pure intimidation,” to Block following the comment about his attorney.

“I was appalled,” Gose said. “I found that reprehensible. Council is supposed to be serving the people and not for an agenda he may have.”

One of Hartsough’s questions was for Hendren, a councilwoman who recently had a disagreement with several residents on social media when she said she would forward Aaron Steffan’s comments to his employer.

Hartsough asked, “Do you believe you’re acting impartial with your comment on social media threatening someone’s employer because he doesn’t agree with you?”

Hendren replied “I think you’re referring to Aaron. I didn’t threaten it. I know a person who works for the same company who said you would send me this information. I didn’t threaten Aaron.”

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Timeline of personnel changes

Dec. 3: Jim Lenner resigns as Johnstown city manager after 12 years and Utilities Superintendent Jack Liggett becomes interim city manager in addition to his utilities job.

Feb. 9: Police officer Mike Ballistrea resigns. He became a Johnstown police officer in July 2020.

Feb. 15: The spouses of Johnstown finance director Dana Steffan and Johnstown Police Chief Abe Haroon call for the resignation of City Councilman Marvin Block for spreading false rumors about their spouses.

March 22: Cheryl Robertson announces her resignation from Johnstown City Council after serving eight years.

March 30: Benjamin Lee announces his resignation from Johnstown City Council after serving six years.

April 19: Donald Barnard and Jon Merriman sworn in as new Johnstown City Council members.

May 4: Former Johnstown City Councilman Sean Staneart appointed assistant city manager, a part-time position.

May 4: Councilman Marvin Block named council president.

May 6: Johnstown Police Chief Abe Haroon fired and deputy chief Rusty Smart appointed interim chief until new leadership found.

May 17: Johnstown City Council announces Meghan Ward has accepted position as Johnstown police officer and will leave her job as mayor’s court clerk. Council lifts police department hiring freeze to seek a new mayor’s court clerk.

June 9: Johnstown residents Autumn Sauer and Robert Roberts file written notice with the council clerk of their attempt to circulate petitions for the recall of Dutcher and Block.

June 17: Finance Director Dana Steffan submits her resignation, effective July 1.

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