At about 2 p.m. Thursday, June 25, Nelsonville Police Chief Chris Johnson handed in his resignation at City Hall, effective immediately.
Three full-time officers in the city also tendered their resignations. Officers Johnny Meeks and Chris Hawk have accepted positions with the Hocking County Sheriff’s Office, newly appointed City Manager Scott Frank explained. However, no reason was given for Chief Johnson, who was unable to be reached by The Messenger print deadline.
The third officer, Eric Gaines, was recently involved in a two-vehicle crash that also involved a building. He returned for his first shift back, and tendered his resignation soon after.
In an emergency measure to have a Chief in place, Frank has appointed Scott Fitch.
“He brings us a lot of experience,” Frank explained, noting stints in both the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigations. “He comes highly recommended, and I’m very, very excited to have him on board.”
A special council meeting has been scheduled for Monday, June 29 at 7 p.m. Part of the meeting’s purpose is for Council to vote on an interim Police Chief, as Frank does not have the power to appoint the interim chief, but had only acted in an emergency capacity. The position will need to be advertised for, alongside the three full-time police officer positions. There are additional positions open in the department, however, Frank said he has received a “hefty amount” of people expressing interest in joining the department now, which he said was “exciting.”
Frank also spoke to his recent appointment, thanking the community for its outpouring of support.
“I’m beyond humbled,” he said. “I never expected anything like that. It puts a lot of pressure on me — I don’t want to let them down. I’m going to keep trying to do what’s best for the city of Nelsonville.”
He noted that the past few weeks have been tumultuous, and expressed a desire to keep moving forward.
“I think every aspect of this is good. Change is uncomfortable, but good,” he said. “You have to change and roll with the punches. I see this as an opportunity, and I wish the officers who are moving on to Hocking County a good start.”
Chief Johnson has faced some public scrutiny during the past few weeks as citizens perceived friction between the new city manager, Scott Frank, and the department. Citizens told The Messenger they believed Johnson was putting pressure on council members, such as Greg Smith, to not hire Frank.
In a 4-3 vote held June 15, Council member Dan Sherman, Council President Anthony Dunfee, and Member Cory Taylor voted for the motion to hire Frank; Members Greg Smith, Wanda Johnson, Carla Grant and Linda Watkins voted against the motion.
Citizen’s responses ranged from surprised to outraged at the first vote, with many expressing their satisfaction with Frank’s performance as the interim city manager since his appointment in February.
Becky Barber, Nelsonville Code Enforcement Officer, noted during the June 16 protest that Smith’s brother-in-law was at the time the current chief of police. She also noted Johnson’s less-than-perfect past, including a federal lawsuit against his former employer, Ohio University, where he worked as a police lieutenant until he was placed on administrative leave in August 2012. Johnson allegedly placed heating pads on the neck and shoulders of a female subordinate after she had taken off her outer uniform shirt while both were on-duty. The female also made an allegation of sexual harassment.
Johnson was placed on paid administrative leave from early August 2012 to late July 2013 while the university investigated the alleged inappropriate on-duty conduct. He ended up filing a lawsuit against the university in the Ohio Court of Claims, arguing that he should have received overtime pay (the hours amounted to 45 hours per week). Johnson later agreed to resign as part of a $150,000 settlement from the university, although as part of that agreement OU did not admit any liability.
Johnson was also named in a 2019 suit filed in Athens County Common Pleas Court, in which a former student at Federal Hocking Local Schools alleged a pattern of sexual abuse by former OU Police Officer Robert Parsons, further alleging that Johnson was “deliberately indifferent” to the abuse of the student, who was at that point under the age of 16. Johnson was the ranking officer in the situation.
“Defendant Christopher Johnson fostered a safe space for sexual misconduct that empowered Parsons to confidently abuse his authority and victims, specifically Plaintiff Arocho, without fear of reprimand,” the suit reads.
The lawsuit alleges that an investigator with Athens County Children Services interviewed Parsons and notified Johnson of the ongoing investigation into Parsons, and that he was “a danger to minors” in early December 2005.
Johnson told media at the time that he “strongly disagrees” with the suit’s allegations, and provided a letter expressing his “extraordinary work on the Officer Parsons investigation,” from the then-assistant OU Police Chief Mark Matthews.
Council member Smith has also been criticized by citizens for incidents when he was police chief of Nelsonville. He was fired from the position in 1985 for “many incidents of misconduct,” including alleged sexual misconduct. During Wednesday’s protest, several individuals noted they did not believe Smith has done much to help the city during his tenure as a councilman.
Barber noted that she has been pleased with how Frank runs the city government offices. As code officer, she said, support from the city is a necessary aspect of her job.
“He supports my decisions, he supports what I do,” she said. “I’m supporting Scott. I believe that since he’s been in he’s been able to facilitate in helping with major issues that code has been facing for years.”
She noted that Frank has been able to help her get about ten properties condemned and set for demolition, which she believes will cut down on spaces where drug abuse, sexual crimes and other crimes can take place within the city.
“There’s tons of crime that are happening in these buildings,” she said. “Not saying that Chuck (Barga) didn’t support me, but I get an overwhelming amount of support from Scott. As code officer, I feel like I need that to take care of the goals I have to alleviate code issues in the city.”