The Ozark City Council voted 3-2 Tuesday night to officially censure Mayor Mark Blankenship for texts he sent regarding defunding of the Ozark-Dale County Public Library and the fallout of those texts being made public.
Councilman Les Perrault made the motion to approve the official reprimand of Blankenship, and Councilman Winston Jackson seconded the motion. Councilors Leah Harlow and Stanley Enfinger voted against the resolution.
Due to the split council, Council President Brenda Simechak cast the deciding vote in favor of censuring Blankenship.
A growing group of Ozark citizens has been calling on the council to censure Blankenship for over a month. The push began after Blankenship sent a message to citizen Adam Kamerer threatening to sue him for releasing texts between Blankenship and Library Director Karen Speck.
“Mayor Blankenship did in his official capacity did presumptuously misrepresent the position of the city council, while implying a threat to one of our town’s most important public resources, which he actually had no authority to execute unilaterally” Perault read from the resolution.
The resolution goes on to admonish Blankenship for his text exchanges with Kamerer and Ozark citizen Bryant Fontenot.
“(The texts to Kamerer) implied a threat of legal action against a private citizen where the latter is exercising his first amendment rights, and then did publicly mock the citizen online,” the resolution states.
The resolution also recalls Blankenship’s text message to Bryant Fontenot stating “looks like you made a fool of yourself!” the night Fontenot came before the council asking them to censure Blankenship.
Blankenship argued Tuesday that the censure resolution didn’t capture the context of that conversation and others.
“See, y’all listen to this crowd and only take what was presented,” Blankenship said. “There’s pieces and parts of that left out. Like where I made the comment ‘Looks like you made a fool out of yourself,” I was sharing Gov. (Kay) Ivey’s article of where she agreed with me 100 percent, and she published it all over the state of Alabama. But see, y’all left out the key pieces that makes me look like I was calling somebody a fool. I’m saying that this is a statewide issue.”
Blankenship also referenced a conversation he said he had with Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth Monday at Fort Novosel where he said Ainsworth told him “I know what you’ve been going through on social media, and I want you to know that we stand with you 100 percent. He told me … 99.5 percent of people in the state of Alabama agree with you.”
Jackson said he got numerous emails, calls and text messages from citizens, including some from former Ozark residents who had moved out of state, and “not one that I received would have been in agreement with what transpired regarding the library.”
“I had several people call me that agree with everything that we’ve done,” Blankenship countered.
The resolution also notes a situation that happened at the last council meeting, when Blankenship had copies of an unrelated text exchange between Fontenot and another private citizen on official city letterhead in an apparent attempt to discredit Fontenot’s character. The letters were placed on chairs before the city council meeting, which Blankenship did not attend.
Fontenot spoke about the text messages owning up to what he had sent and said he had apologized to the recipient. He had also apologized in the conversation visible on the distributed letter.
Simechak stressed to Blankenship that the council isn’t asking him to change his opinions, but to act with professionalism.
“I have asked multiple times, just say it with professionalism, please,” Simechak said. “No one is against you on this. Everything that you said, you have done wonderful things for this city. No one is even saying you need to change your opinion on anything. but if someone disagrees with you, please use professional standards, because I am trying to hold us to the same standards.”
“There is a difference in having a difference of opinion, and defending bald-faced lies,” Blankenship retorted. “That’s what you have allowed to go on in this council chamber for the last four meetings. And on social media, some of the stuff that Les read were bald-faced lies—that I’m taking personal gain on houses down here that I have nothing to do with—”
“No, no no no—nobody has said that in here,” Simechak cut in.
“He just read it off,” Blankenship replied, motioning to Perault.
“No! That is not what that said,” Simechak said.
The exchange continued and Blankenship ultimately told Simechak and the council he put out the letterhead with Fontenot’s texts to a local business owner to show the “morals and values” of his critic and got the approval of his attorney to do so. Blankenship walked away from his seat before Simechak officially concluded the meeting.
In the administrative session before the council meeting, Enfinger said he thought it was “absolutely ridiculous that we’re going to do that to our mayor” based on listening to a “small group of people.”
Harlow said she thought the council “had already taken care of this,” and Enfinger agreed.
Blankenship apologized in that session, not for his actions, but to the “hard-working department heads and city employees that’s had to endure this extreme distraction that (the council) is allowing to happen.”
“We’ve got three city councilors involved in this obviously breaking the sunshine law,” Blankenship said. “You don’t put these things together without communicating as a group.”
He also said the councilors had spent hours dealing with “these people which are nothing but a hate group.”
The group he is referring to calls itself “We the People of Dale County,” formed apparently by citizens who disagreed with Blankenship’s actions.
He also said the councilors are not helping him or any of the department heads “run this city.”
He singled Simechak out, saying he doesn’t see her at any events such as “ribbon cuttings, groundbreakings, singing an agreement on multimillion dollar company— nothing.”
“You might as well add the censure thing to your agenda every week because I’m representing 99 percent of the people in the City of Ozark, who support me and these hard-working department heads and employees,” Blankenship said. “It’s just a shame that the three of y’all that’s put this together has joined this 1 percent negative group.”
Perault corrected Blankenship, saying he is the one who drafted the censure resolution before Blankenship cut in—
“And Les, this is all about the church thing,” Blankenship said.
Simechak said putting a “personal attack” on city letterhead is where Blankenship specifically went too far for her.