BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — If Don Atkinson had not resigned from his position as mayor of Whitehouse on August 17, there were sufficient grounds under the charter for him to be removed from that position “due to his intoxication at village meetings and while conducting village business,” according to a three-page report issued by James Silk, Jr. of Spengler Nathanson Attorneys at Law.
Silk was hired on August 15 to conduct an investigation into three concerns: whether Atkinson conducted village business while intoxicated; his treatment of village staff; and whether he misused public resources. The result of that investigation is outlined in a report made public on September 27.
During the investigation, Silk interviewed council members, staff, the law director and Atkinson, and watched video recordings of some council meetings.
According to the report, the majority of witnesses believed Atkinson was intoxicated at multiple meetings, based on the smell of alcohol, glassy eyes, slurred speech and erratic behavior. While some witnesses said they didn’t observe Atkinson appearing intoxicated, others with special training in detecting intoxication stated that Atkinson appeared to have been drinking.
Some of the behavior cited included losing track of where he was on the agenda or belittling staff or council members.
Witnesses also reported that Atkinson would call them in the evening, after hours, to discuss village business, and they observed slurred speech during conversations. At times he would not recall the details of the conversation the next day, the witnesses stated.
Atkinson, in a letter to Silk, stated, “I have never been intoxicated at any meeting whatsoever. When my phone rings I answer it. If I am watching a football game and drinking an alcoholic beverage in my home, I do not believe that constitutes a violation of any kind.”
A second concern outlined in the report was the treatment of staff, who said they were frequently called during non-work hours and that Atkinson would belittle them and “threaten they would lose their jobs if they did not do what Mr. Atkinson wanted,” the report stated.
While Atkinson created a difficult work environment for the staff, it didn’t rise to the level that would justify removal from office, Silk concluded.
“I have never mistreated an employee of the village,” Atkinson stated in his letter. “In fact, the opposite is true. I place the village and our employees first and myself second. Each one of them is dear to my heart. I vehemently deny this accusation.”
A third concern was the possible misuse of public resources for an iPad raffle for a friend’s son. There was evidence that staff members were encouraged to support the fundraiser. Atkinson said that during discussions about ways to fundraise that he asked about having an employee open a village account for depositing donations, but decided to abandon that idea when he learned from legal counsel that it wasn’t appropriate. Instead, a staff member bought the laptop with his own funds and distributed tickets during his own time, he said.
“I vehemently deny ever coercing any employee at any time. This was a general discussion among friends,” Atkinson stated about the raffle in the letter.
At the outset of the investigation, Silk said he was requested to recommend whether any of the council concerns rose to the level of removal of office as set forth in the charter. Had Atkinson not resigned, council had sufficient grounds under Section 3.09 of the charter to remove Atkinson from his position due to his intoxication at village meetings and while conducting village business, Silk reported.
“Gross misconduct and malfeasance are implicated by Mr. Atkinson’s conduct,” Silk wrote. “Attending meetings intoxicated at a level that affects one’s ability to appropriately conduct village business undermines the authority of the office and public confidence in the proceedings. Further, Mr. Atkinson was advised of council’s concerns regarding this issue, but he did not change his behavior,” Silk wrote, referring to a March 26 meeting in which council first shared their concerns with Atkinson.
On August 8, council again met in executive session – without Atkinson – to discuss continued complaints and concerns about his conduct, according to the report. Once Atkinson was advised of the investigation, he turned in his resignation as mayor on August 17 and asked to have his name removed from the ballot the next week.
“There’s two sides to the story. I think I did the right thing walking away,” Atkinson said, adding that he didn’t want to spend thousands of dollars to defend himself, but felt that he would have prevailed.
Following Atkinson’s resignation, council determined that it was important to continue with the investigation for multiple reasons, including transparency of the process, Silk wrote.
Acting mayor Bob Keogh said he’d rather let the report stand on its own and not make any additional comment. Mindy Curry – who is finishing up her second term on council and not seeking re-election – did share that hiring an outside law firm resulted in an impartial investigation.
“The report speaks for itself. Transparency is what we’ve worked towards. We don’t want to hide anything,” she said. “It’s time for the staff, council and residents to heal and move on now. It’s time to put that behind us.”
Council member Rebecca Conklin Kleiboemer said the decision to conduct an investigation was neither personal nor political.
“This was duty, dictated by the charter,” she said. “I hope we all can move on now and focus on the good work that still remains for us to do, as a whole village.”
Conklin Kleiboemer is one of four candidates now running for mayor. As the council president during the time of Atkinson’s resignation, she took on the role of acting mayor on August 17. She was replaced by Keogh during a 4-2 vote on September 5. Council members Louann Artiaga, Richard Bingham, Steve Connelly and Keogh approved the change, stating that it was important to not give an unfair advantage to one mayoral candidate over another – as Bingham also decided to run.
In addition to Bingham and Conklin Kleiboemer, two others have joined the race: Robert Crowe and Tony Fronk.
Voters will go to one polling location – Community of Christ Lutheran Church, 6517 Finzel Rd. – on Tuesday, October 3 for a primary that will determine which two candidates advance to the Tuesday, November 7 ballot.