WARSAW — In two months, the political winds appear to have shifted for Warsaw Mayor Joe Thallemer and the seven Republican city council members.
On Jan. 10, the Republican mayor was joined in a show of force as he and six of his seven Republican council members and the incumbent clerk-treasurer gathered outside of the Kosciusko County Clerk’s office to file for re-election. The only one missing was Ron Shoemaker, a Republican who is challenging Thallemer’s attempt to win a third term in office.
But twice in the past week, that support seems to have narrowed, at least temporarily.
One week ago, only two council members — Jerry Frush and Council President Diane Quance — participated in a groundbreaking ceremony for the much-awaited Buffalo Street redevelopment project.
On Tuesday, those two council members were the only council members to attend Thallemer’s state of the city address at 2517 Event Center.
While not every council member can attend every event, several Republicans told InkFreeNews that a majority of council members say the absences are a message over their displeasure with the handling of a scandal involving Police Chief Scott Whitaker; and the fallout of the Jan. 25 incident involving his treatment of an elderly man while he was off-duty.
“I think, in general, some of the council members are just not happy with what’s going on right now. Because of that, it’s hard to feel supportive,” said City Council Member Cindy Dobbins.
State Rep. Dave Wolkins, of Warsaw, is also aware of the concerns by council and others over allegations that Whitaker tackled, or shoved to the ground, a 74-year-old man he suspected of driving impaired; and from fallout involving suspensions of two Warsaw Police officers — Jason Dobbins and Ross Minear — who were apparently concerned with how Whitaker responded.
Within hours of the officers’ 10-day suspensions without pay, Wolkins said he began receiving calls and emails from people upset with the handling of the entire situation. He said complaints have come from those who are upset with Thallemer and others who are viewed as being friends with the mayor.
Wolkins said he’s received an anonymous email, apparently sent by a police officer, who is upset and sent the message to numerous people, including media.
“I’m pretty frustrated at the way the whole thing has gone down,” Wolkins said, adding, “But, I’m pretty much powerless to make anything happen.”
While Wolkins can’t do anything formally as a state lawmaker, he did contact the Indiana Attorney General’s office, which suggested city council members hire an independent attorney to look into the matter if they feel strongly about the situation. That person could then review the entire matter and report back.
Whitaker has been criticized for acting too harshly at the scene. Wolkins said he’s read the chief’s report of the incident and heard comments from the man on a police body cam who was confronted by Whitaker as the man tried to get into his car and park it in his garage. Whitaker claims the man’s legs gave out and that he assisted the man to the ground. Whitaker has since apologized for the circumstances.
Nobody was arrested or cited, and the man and his wife chose not to file a complaint.
“I think the chief was downplaying his role in the report,” Wolkins said.
In an interview Wednesday, March 13, Thallemer declined to comment on suggestions that Whitaker’s portrayal of his interaction with the man on Jan. 25 was inaccurate. He said he believes both situations have been addressed adequately.
“I don’t know that there’s much left that we haven’t already done,” Thallemer said.
Thallemer downplayed the lack of attendance by council members at the two events. He said he talked to one councilman who has voiced concern about the Jan. 25 incident, “but nothing specific since the discipline” of the two officers five days ago.
Some council members, including Dobbins, said they are concerned officers don’t have a good way to convey to others problems within the department.
Dobbins and others said they believe issues over the police department will continue to “fester.”
As a former administrator with the old Multi-Township EMS, Dobbins said she understands the personnel issues that can arise within a department. She said she believes the first officer who reached out to council likely knew he would get in trouble but felt strongly about the situation.
“I know it’s really hard for people to come forward,” she said. “I just want our officers to work in a good environment and I want them to have the respect of the community,” she said.
Thallemer attempted to talk with all officers about the issue. He said they need to work within the structure if they are not happy about something.
“There is a chain of command and that chain of command needs to be respected,” Thallemer said.
Councilmen Jack Wilhite and Michael Klondaris were alerted to concerns over the Whitaker incident by one of the officers. They met with the man and his wife and then took their concerns to the mayor.
“I’m just very disappointed with the way things have turned out,” Wilhite said. “I’m not convinced the right thing’s been done.”
Thallemer said he believes both officers have chosen to accept the 10-day suspensions. If that’s the case, and the council does not take steps to look into the matter on its own, the issue may slowly die down.
“Then it’s up to the public,” Wilhite said.