Story by Press Reporter: Shannon Taylor
The Dresden board of alderman received a civil summons filed by Dresden Mayor Jeffrey Washburn on Friday, July 8th for the “permanent restraining order and restoration of rights of office.” The suit came one month after the board voted to censure Washburn, request his resignation and reinstate the city’s Facebook page with city recorder Jennifer Branscum as administrator.
The lawsuit asked for the censure resolution to be rescinded and that the board follow the open meetings act. Monday, July 11th the city board meeting had to be adjourned due to lack of a quorum present because only two of six aldermen showed up at the meeting. On Wednesday, July 13th the alderman obtained attorney Roy Herron who apparently immediately settled the lawsuit between the two parties. The settlement agreed by all parties was that both parties are to follow the open meetings law and the city’s social media policy as well as rescinding the resolution calling for Washburn’s censure.
Alderwoman Sandra Klutts spoke to the Press regarding the matter and stated that this agreement does give the mayor back control over the city’s Facebook page, however, he has agreed to follow the city’s social media policy and not block citizens or delete comments on the page. Klutts also stated that, “Because of the restraining order, anything we said at city board meetings could be used against us in that lawsuit. That made people feel like they couldn’t go to the meetings. We were prevented from doing city business for the city of Dresden because of the lawsuit and the restraining order and we couldn’t go from now until the lawsuit could be settled, which could be months or even years, and we don’t have that much time.”
Klutts went on to say that Herron prepared the deal with Washburn and then asked the alderman to sign it. “I decided when I signed it that I needed to be about the business of the city of Dresden. That’s where my heart is. That’s why I ran for alderman to start with and why I’m running again. This is my hometown and I’ve lived here my entire life. I love Dresden and I love its people and I want to move on with city business. I don’t think it’s right to hold the citizens hostage. We’ve made our stance clear-everything that was in the resolution was true and it’s out there and can’t be retracted so people know how we feel and how he feels. I didn’t change the way I feel about what has happened in the past.”
The public was quick to respond to the matter. Mayoral candidate Mike Vernon stated, “the mayor at any time can threaten litigation, hold the city hostage by alderman refusing to be in his company and if they think of putting up a fight he will file a civil suit and he will get what he wants.”
One resident said, “yet he [Washburn] had no problem violating other people’s rights” regarding the mayor’s lawsuit on the board violating the mayor’s first amendment rights. Residents claim that that’s exactly what Washburn did to them on the city’s Facebook page when he managed the page by blocking citizens or deleting comments. There were sixteen people on the city’s blocked list to which the mayor stated had attacked him personally, used foul language or were fake accounts, however, when the Press reached out to the people on the list they claimed that they were blocked for having differing opinions from the mayor. The Press confirmed this to be true via an FOIA request of the city’s Facebook data. There was only one account on the list of sixteen that never responded to the Press that could have possibly been a fake account.
Mayoral candidate Brandi George said, “the lawsuit was timed to negatively impact the workings of our city. There was ample time prior to last Friday to file a lawsuit if he [Washburn] genuinely felt like his personal civil liberties were being violated. Our charter needs to have emergency meeting guidelines included in it so that our city knows how to function and accomplish city business when there is a conflict. Our alderman were backed in a corner with the lawsuit being filed the Friday before the meeting. Our city has suffered because of the intentional timing of the lawsuit. I don’t agree with rescinding the resolution and I am concerned about the future workings of our city and Facebook page. I also understand that if the aldermen had not chosen to rescind the resolution, the restraining orders would have ensured that city business could have continued to not be conducted.”
Dresden resident James Cobb stated that he thinks it is an “abuse of power.” Cobb thinks that someone needs to look into the matter more closely. “I’m embarrassed by his actions.”
Dresden resident April Lieberman stated, “I am very disappointed. It looks like the board has thrown the rights of citizens to participate freely in our government under the bus, so they don’t have to be inconvenience by his [Washburn] legal case.” Lieberman went on to say that the censure resolution was “not a bell that can be unrung. None of this takes away the misbehavior and incompetence that has characterized the Washburn administration.”
Dresden resident Sarah Coutu stated that she feels like Washburn gets away with whatever he wants. “When the alderman censured him and voted for him to resign, they seemed strong and like they were standing up for the citizens of Dresden and for what is right. It worries me that he has this much sway over our aldermen.”
Former resident Justin Parham stated that he thought the alderman did what they thought was best for the city. “I don’t necessarily agree with it. They pretty much gave a child his way when he started throwing a tantrum. I just wish there was a way to hold Jeff accountable for what he has done.”
Many residents asked the question of at what point do county officials step in when things are happening in a city where the public thinks that an official has not been acting in an appropriate manner. Weakley County Mayor Jake Bynum responded to the question by stating that “there is really nothing that the county or any other subdivision could do. This is why that statement that “elections matter” is so true. Short of committing a felony you can’t remove an elected official.”
The problem, according to the citizens the Press spoke with, is that to them it seems like Dresden has been “mishandled at the hands of elected officials and that no one has stepped in to do anything about it.” One resident said, “some forget that the legislative body is supposed to set guidelines for the mayor to operate by. This is how the diplomatic process works so that dictatorship is not possible.”
Many residents claim that they are embarrassed to live in Dresden now because of all the drama that is going on. “Elected officials acting like preteens” said one resident. Another said, “the whole situation is an embarrassment for Dresden.”
The next city board meeting has been rescheduled for Monday, July 18th at 6:00 p.m. at the Dresden Civics Center.