Elko New Market Police Chief Rick Jensen gave out stickers to children at a playground while on patrol Friday. The City Council voted unanimously Thursday night to reinstate the city’s police force after previously voting to remove it April 9. Council members said finances and personnel issues were behind their initial decision to disband the force.
The police are back in Elko New Market, but the reason behind their two-week absence is still up for debate.
Some say it's money. Some say it's personal. Many are frustrated and unsatisfied.
"It's ridiculous," said Denise Wagner, one of the more than 150 residents who attended a city council meeting Thursday night.
Wagner, like much of the crowd, showed up at the meeting, argued and ultimately prevailed when the council voted unanimously to reinstate the police, effective Friday. But throughout the night, members of the crowd shouted at council members, asking for the "real reason" behind the 3-2 April 9 vote to disband the department in the town of 3,800 in southern Scott County.
Council Member Bob Hanna, who led the trio of council members who voted to remove officers from patrol, maintained Friday that finances were his primary motivation. But he acknowledged that concerns about police department personnel played into his decision.
In 2008, the Lakeville Police Department investigated claims of inappropriate conduct among Elko New Market officers. The probe yielded no criminal charges but did result in a written reprimand for officer Steven Malecka for telling sexual jokes, placing an inappropriate screen saver on a computer and using confidential information for personal reasons.
And Hanna supplied what he said was a resignation letter from an officer who left the force in 2004, describing a racist climate in the department. Former city administrator Ed Shukle, who is now the Jordan administrator, said the city looked into those claims and determined they were unfounded.
But Hanna said the allegations of inappropriateness and racism weren't sufficiently addressed.
"A more complete internal investigation should be done on it," Hanna said.
City Administrator Tom Terry said allegations against Chief Rick Jensen, also investigated by the Lakeville police, were unsubstantiated.
In agreeing to reinstate the department, effective Friday, the council also agreed to conduct personnel evaluations of Jensen and Malecka, keeping Malecka, who is now a sergeant, on paid administrative leave until his review is completed. The council also will consider hiring an independent consultant to evaluate whether it's more cost effective to stick with local police or contract with the sheriff's office.
Asked whether he would have voted to reinstate the department without those additional conditions, Hanna said, "I don't believe so."
Jensen pointed out that the 2008 investigation cleared him of any wrongdoing, but he declined to comment further.
Malecka declined to comment on the terms of his employment and past disciplinary action when contacted Friday.
Sheriff had doubts, too
Residents weren't the only ones questioning the council's motivation Thursday night. The Scott County sheriff and county commissioner Tom Wolf also expressed doubts about disbanding the local department.
The county board members had previously suggested to the council that they would support a contract if three criteria were met: the contract had to be financially beneficial to both parties, the public had to support it and the council needed to lend unanimous or near-unanimous support.
"I don't see any of it," Wolf said. "I don't see why we're having this discussion."
Sheriff Kevin Studnicka scolded the council for springing the decision to disband the department on the sheriff's office and the public.
"I do feel like they've been drug through the mud on this whole deal, and I don't like it one bit," he said, drawing cheers from the crowd.
In a lengthy question-and-answer session, the council drilled the sheriff on everything from the cost of coverage to his thoughts on local politics. When Mayor Jason Ponsonby asked Studnicka what the real issue in Elko New Market appeared to be, the sheriff responded: "Somebody's got a cut on their finger and you're trying to amputate their arm."
Studnicka said that if the city ultimately decided to pursue a contract with the county for coverage, he would expect a term of at least three years because he wouldn't want to hire and train more deputies only to see them booted later by the city.
"I really think this is an unstable group at this point," Studnicka said of the city council.
Ponsonby said Friday that even he's still not quite sure what prompted the three council members to disband the department, because they haven't specified their concerns.
"That has been my frustration," Ponsonby said. "You have to let the public know what you're doing."
Katie Humphrey • 952-882-9056