St. Elmo council uphold mayor's decision

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By Rich Bauer, Managing Editor

A 3-3 vote by the St. Elmo City Council at a special meeting on Thursday night means that Mayor Larry Tish’s dismissal of Ken Thomason from the chief of police position stands.

About 240 city residents were on hand for the meeting, which was moved from the Phillips Building to the St. Elmo Elementary School because of the size of the crowd. About a dozen area police officers checked everyone with handheld metal detectors as they entered the building.

At the close of the meeting, which lasted about an hour, aldermen Chris Worman and Mike McCall, and Tish, voted to uphold Thomason’s dismissal.

Voting to reverse the action were aldermen Theresa Riley, Lloyd Carson and Jayson Porter. Alderman Jaimee Blankenship abstained from voting, “because of a personal interest,” citing actions by some city residents as a reason.

Tish confirmed after the meeting that Blankenship is his sister-in-law.

City Attorney Rick Day explained at the beginning of the meeting that after researching state statutes and speaking with Illinois Municipal League officials, he learned that Tish had the right to vote on this type of personnel matter, whether or not there was a tie.

Because of that, the two-thirds majority needed to overturn the mayor’s dismissal of Thomason rose from four to five.

After that vote, Tish asked for the council to approve his appointment of Rob Schukar as the interim police chief, but none of the alderman made such a motion.

Tish said after the meeting that in speaking with Day, it is his understanding that he can appoint someone to the post on a temporary basis, “until we can come to an agreement on someone.”

After the meeting, Thomason said he would not make any decisions on continuing to fight the mayor’s decision until he spoke with his attorney, Lee Barron of Alton.

“I’ve tried to prepare myself for this happening,” Thomason said, adding that it still is difficult to grasp.

“I still don’t know what the charges are,” he said. “I’ve never received a copy of that; I guess that I did have them read to me tonight.

“I’m very disappointed that the city council didn’t listen to the people,” Thomason said, referring to the fact that the majority of people at the meeting were there to support him.

Residents were given the opportunity to speak up to one minute on the issue. Nine residents spoke, and eight of them voiced their support for Thomason.

Reading a letter that he had written to inform the council of his reasons for dismissing Thomason, Tish said, “I attempted to work with the chief of police over the past several months, implementing policies that I feel are necessary for the community to have a professional and effective police force.

“I made it clear to the chief during earlier conversations that I expected changes to be made in philosophy and operation of the police department, and the chief has refused to implement those policies that I wished to be implemented,” Tish said.

“Many of those policies came as a result of numerous complaints that I received from citizens of St. Elmo,” he said.

Tish also alleged that Thomason “failed to respond to my phone calls.

“These are not actions which I feel can continue to mark a professional relationship in bringing about the implementation of needed changes to the police department,” Tish said.

Of the nine residents who took the opportunity to speak on the issue, Jeffrey Whalen was the only one to voice support for Tish’s dismissal of Thomason.

Whalen said that several years ago, he complained to Thomason and the council’s safety committee about “oil tankers coming in between Deken Park and the high school,” where he and his daughter walk.

“It’s been hazardous, and it still remains there; nothing’s been done about it,” Whalen said, adding that he believes that all residents should be treated equally.

“If an employee doesn’t do their job, they should be looking for a new one,” he said.

Two former city clerks, Barb Kilzer and Cheryl Watson, questioned the way that Thomason was dismissed.

Kilzer asked Tish if he had gone through the safety committee and the council in taking the action. “Did you follow protocol?” Kilzer asked.

Watson, who is also the wife of former mayor Randy Watson, said, “I remind you that local government is always a system of checks and balances.

“Authority is never given to one person to make decisions of this nature. That’s why committees are in place, that’s why there is a board in place, why personnel policies are in place,” Watson said.

She asked Tish if there was any documentation to show that the mayor “had any issues” with Thomason.

Barbara Cavalier said, “Your campaign was (putting) the people first. Let’s start tonight.

“These are the majority of the people; this is what we want,” she said.

Michael Springman, who served as an alderman for six years and two years as the public safety committee chairman for two years, said, “I think we need to sit down (and) work this out. Stop splitting the city and give the guy a chance, because I still think he’s a good police chief.”

Barron was the last to speak during the public comment part of the meeting.

“This process is flawed,” he said. Still, as I stand here, neither the chief nor myself have seen a copy of any written reason for doing this (dismissing Thomason).

“Due process is what lawyers call it; simple fairness is what the rest of us call it,” Barron said. “Simple fairness is that he has an opportunity to see what he’s done wrong.”

Barron said there are only three items in Thomason’s personnel file, and all are positive. “Everything he’s heard has been positive.”

Barron told Day earlier in the meeting that he challenges Tish’s right to cast a vote on Thomason’s dismissal.

Only three aldermen spoke out on the issue.

Jayson Porter, who served as the interim mayor before getting defeated by Tish in the mayoral election this spring, said that Thursday night was the first time that he, like Thomason, had seen the charges against the police chief.

On the issue of implement policies, Porter asked, “If they should be implemented, should they not go through the council?”

Prior to the vote, Porter urged all aldermen to think about all of the support being shown for Thomason.

“This is not a game; we are dealing with someone’s life. Let’s sit down, work together and get this resolved,” Porter said.

In response to Porter’s comments, Tish said, “I am not confident that he is the right person for the job anymore.”

Carson made only one remark to Tish. “Are you for the people or for yourself?” he said.

Worman, who spoke in support of Tish’s action, noted that he had served as mayor for two four-year terms and that he had appointed Thomason as police chief to eight one-year terms.

“We had a good working relationship,” Worman said. However, he said, “Since the appointment (by Tish) in May, I have not seen the cooperation from him and his department to best serve the community.”

In rebuttal to Tish’s charges, Thomason told the crowd, “I’ve been a part of your life, doing my best to protect you from harm. I’ve always dealt with people fairly and honestly.”

He also said that he had worked to obtain state and federal grants to fund the purchase of a squad car, computer equipment, office equipment, radio equipment and a defibrillator for the city, and that he has served as president of the Illinois Police Association.

“I have always stood up for what’s right,” Thomason said.

“I’ve worked for five mayors, and over these years, we’ve had our disagreements. But we’ve always been able to sit down, talk about them, work it out and walk away with a handshake,” Thomason said.

He added that he has never been disciplined, either verbally or in writing.

About his relationship with Tish, Thomason said, “He has done nothing but work against me from the start.

“I have had many conversations with him, and at the end of those conversations, I always told him, if you have a question or a problem, come see me - this has never happened,” he said.

Thomason said Tish “put down the police department” while campaigning for mayor, and since being elected, “he has continued to degrade me and the police department in public.

“These charges are bogus - there’s nothing there,” Thomason said.

About Tish’s allegations that he had failed to implement new policies, Thomason said, “You were never in my office and asked about any new policy - never.”

After the meeting, Tish said he realizes that many residents of St. Elmo are upset with his decision to dismiss Thomason. But, he said, many times in history have been people been upset with their leaders, including Abraham Lincoln, when they did something that was unpopular.

“(Lincoln) was willing to separate a nation on his beliefs,” Tish said.

Despite the outrage that was expressed at Thursday’s meeting, Tish said, “I feel that our city can be better. I’ve got to find a way to get there.

“You’re not going to like every decision that I make,” he said.