The Hiawatha City Commission now has 10 days to name a replacement commissioner, after John Merchant, Jr. resigned his position at Monday’s meeting, following a failed attempt to reinstate recently terminated Fire Chief Ryan Shockley.
The meeting was well-attended by both concerned community members and members of the fire department.
The resignation came after the commission heard comments from Assistant Fire Chief Paul Shaefer, who spoke on Shockley’s behalf. Shockley was terminated from his position following an executive session at the Nov. 18 commission meeting, without any public comment as to a reason.
Shaefer called the sudden firing a “huge slap in the face,” and spoke to Shockley’s leadership and teaching abilities, and said that the Hiawatha Fire Department is “as strong as it can be, right now,” thanks to Shockley’s efforts. Shaefer cited a list of 53 notes taken from one-on-one meetings between department members and commissioners in April, which have been, to his knowledge, unaddressed by the commission in the interim, and were given to the department at the time of Shockley’s termination. According to Shaefer, Shockley had turned the department around since that time. During his public comment, he Assistant Chief asked the commission what could be done to reinstate the former chief. Mayor Bill Collins stated that action by the commission is the only way to fill an appointed position, at which point Commissioner Merchant put forth a motion to reinstate.
The motion died on the floor for lack of a second. Merchant then made a comment directed at the fire fighters in the room to the point that the commission does not support them. Moments later, Merchant, who was not present at the Nov. 18 meeting, read a letter of resignation, stating that he would be relocating outside of city limits later this month and citing concerns over the ease of access of community members to speak at commission meetings, an unanswered request to have credit card charges listed and discussed in open session, and a lack of accountability. Merchant closed by saying, “We are the voice of our citizens and we owe it to them to do the right thing,” at which time he left the meeting.
Some citizens present at the meeting were upset by a lack of a clear response as to why Shockley was let go, to which City Attorney Andy Delaney replied that personnel and other matters discussed in Executive Session were not something that commission members can discuss in open session. Delaney also responded to questions as to Commissioner Merchant’s lack of knowledge of the previous meeting’s proceedings and Shockley’s lack of knowledge as to a reason of his firing, stating to both that he could not discuss the answers to those questions, but that he disagreed with the factual basis of each question.
Commissioner Dustin Williams stated that he hates that emergency responders and the city are at odds and hopes to find a way to re-establish proper communication. Williams, a longtime EMS member himself, said that he had prepared a statement, but felt that tensions were too high in the room for any constructive conversation to continue. Commissioner Becky Shamburg agreed, saying also that “the issue is not closed,” but voicing her opinion that now is not the time to continue the discussion.
The commission voted to accept Merchant’s resignation, and approved a Special Meeting on Monday, Dec. 9 to fill the position, which they must do within 10 days.