Debunking gossip surrounding David
Blackham resignation in Mt. Pleasant
By Suzanne Dean
Nov. 23, 2017
I’ve heard people say, “Your paper is so negative. You’re always reporting on the bad things and controversies that happen in communities.”
I plead “not guilty.” Anyone who analyzes our newspaper closely and adds up column inches devoted to different types of stories will find we devote much more space to articles about awards, grand marshals, and community projects and sports events than to so-called “investigative” stories.
What a lot of readers might not know is that we sometimes spend a lot of time and money looking into things, only to find allegations of supposed wrongdoing don’t check out. Or we are simply unable to get anyone to talk with us on the record about what has happened. Or we find that while someone’s feelings have been hurt, the issue at hand is a private, not a public matter.
In those cases, despite the time invested in investigating, we drop the story, or at minimum, try to debunk the misinformation that is floating around.
Over some months, we heard a lot of talk about foment in the Mt. Pleasant City Hall and in the Mt. Pleasant community before and following David Blackham’s resignation as mayor last June 1.
In late October, we received an anonymous letter. “In following the Messenger’s recent coverage of the Chief Ron Rasmussen story, I recall a statement made in one of the pieces that said…the Messenger reports all details and facts, leaving nothing to question,” the anonymous person wrote.
“I remember how incredulous I felt that such a statement was made following your lack of investigation and subsequent coverage of the resignation of former Mayor David Blackham.” The writer went on to say that our “false story” had helped Blackham “propagate his lies.”
The letter seemed to put us up to a challenge. But I felt a little skeptical. Because Blackham was no longer in office, I wasn’t sure if allegations about supposed past conduct mattered any more. But my managing editor Robert Stevens and I decided to move ahead.
One of the rumors we heard was that an officer in the Mt. Pleasant Police Department had engaged in improper conduct. That seemed to be a matter worth looking into. We did. We talked to people with first-hand knowledge. There was absolutely nothing to the report. Since the gossip didn’t check out, I’m not going to repeat what the rumors were.
We also heard about some in-fighting among the city hall staff. Some of it was described in a letter Blackham wrote to a citizen after his resignation, a letter that went public. One person wanted another person fired; one person said another person wasted time at work, etc.
The fusses seemed to be internal management issues. The allegations were way too subjective to verify. More important, by the time we read about them, they seemed to be in the past. Sandra Bigler, who became interim mayor after Blackham resigned, said she had been working on employee morale, and morale had improved.
The central issue in all the hub-bub, we found, was that a female city employee had filed a complaint with the Utah Labor Commission accusing Blackham, while he was mayor, of sexual harassment.
We checked with the Labor Commission. Because such complaints are personnel matters, the commission would not confirm that a complaint out of Mt. Pleasant had ever been filed. But multiple city officials confirmed that there had been a complaint. While we learned from various off-the-record communications who the complainant was, no one would give us the name on the record. And the woman who filed the complaint never went public. So I can’t name her here.
I would be the last person to discount the seriousness of sexual harassment. At the same time, sexual harassment has become a catch-all term. From what I understand, the term sometimes incorporates conduct or communication that has nothing to do with sex at all.
We did learn from various off-the-record interviews that the sexual harassment being alleged in Mt. Pleasant was nothing like the charges now flying against Ray Moore, the Alabama candidate for U.S. Senate, or against Sen. Al Frankin of Minnesota.
There were never any allegations of inappropriate touching or inappropriate conduct. The woman’s complaints were about verbal statements she found to be disturbing and demeaning. Blackham, in his letter to the Mt Pleasant citizen, said the problem was the employee’s interpretations of the statements.
We also learned from multiple sources that a meeting was called, attended by the mayor, city council, the woman filing the complaint and other city employees. The whole “sexual harassment” matter was aired.
According to our sources, who, again, declined to be named or quoted, the meeting pointed to the need for established channels where employees could take grievances in the early stages so the problems didn’t escalate to where they had to be brought to the council. Since then, a city ombudsman and grievance procedure has been set up.
The other significant action at the city hall meeting was that council members unanimously said they wanted Blackham to finish out his term as mayor.
However, at the time, Blackham was having serious back and knee problems and was in severe pain much of the time. One employee who worked closely with him in city hall said he had difficulty sitting in his mayor’s chair for any length of time.
A week or two after the meeting, Blackham read a letter of resignation at a city council meeting. The Messenger carried a front page story June 8 reporting the substance of the letter with some additional comments from Blackham’s wife, Dianne.
Knowledgeable people we talked to said that while Blackham was emotionally wounded by the sexual harassment charges, the allegations were a secondary factor. His real reason for resigning was the stress and extreme discomfort he was under while trying to perform his duties.
After Blackham left the mayor’s office, the employee withdrew her complaint to the Labor Commission. So there was never an independent investigation. We at the Messenger do not know the substance of the statements by Blackham that upset the employee.
As many of us probably would in the same situation, Blackham felt he was right and the employee was wrong. He has said in numerous communications that no sexual harassment every occurred. He wanted vindication—and he went to interim Mayor Sandra Bigler to try to get it.
She made an executive decision, which was her province, that the city and its employees needed to move on and that nothing would be served by revisiting the painful past. She refused to meet with Blackham.
At that point, Blackham did something that he had a perfect right to do. He endorsed Bigler’s opponent, Dan Simons, in the general election and ran ads, including in the Messenger, supporting Simons. But Bigler defeated Simons, 58 to 42 percent.
In the weeks and months following Blackham’s resignation, some of the people involved in the difficult times in city hall carried their viewpoints into the private arena. That’s sad. But statements in private settings such as “I hear that they had dirt on you,” requests for apologies and termination of friendships don’t have much to do with city government policy or city operations. That’s why I decided to write a column that I hope clears the air and deescalates the talk but not to carry a probe of what happened any further.