WEST ALEXANDRIA — West Alexandria Village Council issued a new public statement about the recent termination of Fire Dept. Chief Jeff Shafer; allowed community members and one councilman to voice concerns about the controversial move; and accepted the resignation of village zoning officer JoEllen Hickey during its regular monthly meeting Monday, June 15.
Police Chief Tony Gasper addressed the assembled citizens at the top of Monday’s meeting.
“I encourage everyone to speak their mind tonight. I just ask that you do it in a respectful, adult tone and don’t let it become a circus,” Gasper said. “If it can’t be civil, you will be asked to leave.”
Shafer’s termination was announced following a public hearing held Monday, June 8. The move came only a few months after Shafer reached a settlement with the Preble County Prosecutor’s Office requiring him to attend ethics training, and pay over $1,700 in restitution to the village, following an investigation conducted by The Ohio Ethics Commission.
An altercation occurred after council announced its decision last week, with former Chief Shafer’s wife, Susan Shafer, claiming she was violently shoved by Mayor Jeff Hickey’s wife (and former village zoning officer) JoEllen Hickey. Hickey claimed she had simply given Shafer “a gentle pat on the back” to get her attention and ask her to calm down after Shafer began shouting at the mayor following the announcement of Chief Shafer’s termination.
“Over the past week, every council member has received questions and comments from you, the public, about [our] decision,” council president Ashley Myers read from a prepared statement Monday night.
“The only issues for the hearing were whether there was evidence to support the mayor’s allegation that Mr. Shafer used his position as Fire Chief to advance the interests of his family members,” Myers continued. “Council was not permitted to consider issues like Mr. Shafer’s reputation in the community, or his work history or job performance. It was also not about the conduct of other people besides Mr. Shafer, or our personal feelings about [either] the charges or Mr. Shafer.”
Myers also said that public commentary was not allowed during the hearing because, under Ohio law, “allowing comments from non-witnesses could have invalidated any decision arrived at by the council”; that the decision to terminate Shafer was reached unanimously by participating board members; and that council’s decision was separate from the OEC investigation and subsequent settlement between Shafer and the Prosecutor’s Office.
Statements from the public
Village solicitor Aaron Glascow addressed the audience, asking that any public comments be addressed to the council as a whole and not to any particular village official.
“We want to hear from everyone, but we need to follow the rules,” Glascow said.
Kelsie Shafer, the former fire department chief’s daughter, was the first to address the council.
“I am speaking to give you all an insight [into] my own perspective regarding the actions recently taken against my father,” Keslie Shafer said.
“Thirty-nine and a half years,” Kelsie Shafer continued. “39 and a half years of not only service, but voluntary service at that. Thirty-nine and a half years of countless interrupted family functions, birthdays and missed ball games, all given up to put one’s community first. Thirty-nine and a half years taken away from one of my biggest role models and one of the most hard-working and dedicated people I know. Thirty-nine and a half years of this lifelong West Alexandria resident’s life [being] put on the line to help others in not only the West Alexandria community, but all of Preble County.”
“You might not yet see what a gem you just lost, but trust me, the rest of the supporting community truly does,” Shafer concluded.
Lewisburg Fire and EMS Chief Robert Sewert then spoke, saying he felt “compelled” to describe his shock at the council’s decision.
“When the verdict was dropped, I was stunned. I think I had to pick my chin up off the floor there,” Sewart said. “I was frustrated. I was disappointed.”
“I’m here for selfish reasons,” Sewert continued. “And those selfish reasons are that I don’t have [Chief Shafer] to rely on anymore. I hope that everybody in this room can see that I have lost something, and this community has lost something. I find it very hard to believe that this man is being pushed out the door and there’s nothing left.”
Audience sentiment seemed to rest largely with the Shafer family during Monday’s meeting, as statements in Chief Shafer’s defense were uniformly met with applause.
Zoning officer resigns
Council president Myers also read a brief statement from village zoning officer JoEllen Hickey, who chose to resign her position.
“I have been glad to serve the community, but I need more time with my grandbabies,” the statement read. The statement did not address Chief Shafer’s firing or Hickey’s alleged assault on Susan Shafer.
Council then voted to accept Hickey’s resignation. Council member Zach Shafer abstained. A work session was scheduled for Tuesday, June 23 at 5:30 p.m. to discuss the posting of a new zoning officer position, as well as a posting for a new fire chief.
Finally, councilman Shafer read from a prepared statement near the end of the meeting.
“As I stand before you today, I’m moved by a trend of deeply concerning actions that have occurred in the last six months since I was sworn in to village council,” Shafer read.
Shafer referenced many projects he claimed to have discussed with other council members, including “cleaning up downtown, attracting new businesses, paving projects, water tower upgrades, sidewalks, cost-saving measures, cleaning up the town hall, balancing the budget, [providing] 24/7 police protection, hiring a strong village administrator, [and] the new wastewater treatment plant coming online.”
Shafer further said a meeting between himself, Mayor Hickey, and council member Holly Robbins — intended to settle unspecified “differences and upset feelings” between the three — left him feeling assured they would be able to work together.
“Things started off great, upbeat and positive,” Shafer read. “The cohesion of council and the mayor were great. Projects were getting accomplished and positive changes were starting to be seen. Then, on Feb. 12, things went south.”
Shafer then referenced the firing of village fiscal officer Wendy Chesney.
“Prior to that meeting I was assured on many occasions by council president Myers that there was a plan,” Shafer said. “I asked many questions: who’s going to write checks, pay bills, do payroll? And the list went on. Well, there was no plan; the process to fill the position took nearly two months and [caused] much stress to many council members.”
Council then moved to eliminate a part-time cleaning position in April, according to Shafer.
“This was brought to the rest of council the night of the meeting, no discussion prior, and the employee whose job [was eliminated] was not contacted prior,” Shafer said.
Finally, Shafer criticized efforts by council to reduce the police department budget by $48,000 per year and to cut the pay of village fire department staff “nearly in half.”
“People, do we see a pattern?” Shafer asked. “ A clear pattern of power? When does the removal of officials in the village stop? And at what cost to the taxpayers? When does the firing stop? What is the point, what is the motive?”
Tax levies placed on the ballot
Council voted unanimously to place separate 1.5-mill and 1.4-mill tax levies on the ballot for November 2020. Both are renewals, according to Shafer, and are needed in order to cover general operating costs for the village.
Reach Anthony Baker at 937-683-4057 or on Facebook @improperenglish