City Administrator takes heat for insulting word choices aimed at Alderman Sabatke
TINA L. SCOTT
Johnson’s word choice deemed insulting
On Tuesday, Nov. 10, Merrill City Administrator Dave Johnson sent out his summary of the “highlights” of the Common Council Meeting of Monday, Nov. 9, via email, to a list that included many City of Merrill department heads, local media, aldermen, and others. The final paragraph of that report read, “In a final action, after the budget had already been passed, Alderman Sabatke ignominiously made a motion to defund the City Administrator position for 2022. This motion died for lack of a second.”
The report was also published on the City’s Facebook page and the home page of the City of Merrill website.
The report sparked a Nov. 10 email response from City of Merrill 8th District Alderman Steve Sabatke. “For the record and to be corrected on this report: Please note that in this report the reference to Alderman Sabatke ‘ignominiously’ presenting a report is a personal insult to myself and a violation of the nine rules of civility passed by the Common Council.” Sabatke said.
Sabatke’s email to local media, City Attorney Tom Hayden, and other Aldermen, with a copy to Johnson, said: “This is an official protest to the libelous email sent out by David Johnson to City employees, the media, and numerous others.”
“Please note that in this report the reference to Alderman Sabatke ‘ignominiously’ presenting a report is a personal insult to me and a violation of the nine rules of civility passed by the Common Council,” Sabatke’s email continued. In addition, the email erroneously reported that this presentation was out of order in the process of the meeting.
“To present this to the public and media is inexcusable, and I demand a correction of this report and a public apology,” he concluded.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary online defines ignominious as: 1: HUMILIATING, DEGRADING: an ignominious defeat; 2: deserving of shame or infamy: DESPICABLE; and 3: marked with or characterized by disgrace or shame : DISHONORABLE.
Johnson dodges the elephant in the room
Later that day, on Nov. 10, Johnson sent out an email that said: “In the report that I sent out earlier today, I erroneously reported that Alderman Sabatke made his motion to defund the City Administrator position after the budget was passed when in fact his motion was made as the last action before the budget was passed. For this error in order of occurrence I apologize.”
His email detailed: “The report should have read: In a final action, prior to the budget being passed, Alderman Sabatke ignominiously made a motion to defund the City Administrator position for 2022. This motion died for lack of a second.”
He did not, in that email, address his word choice in the report or Sabatke’s objection to what he perceived as an insult. He repeated that word choice in his correction.
On the afternoon of Wednesday, Nov. 10, both the Facebook post and Johnson’s report on the City’s website were edited to eliminate the entire paragraph referencing Sabatke and his motion, along with the offensive wording.
Late the evening of Nov. 10, Sabatke filed a formal letter of complaint against Johnson with the Personnel and Finance Committee protesting the “libelous email sent out by David Johnson” and “also posted on the City’s web site and Facebook page.”
“These disrespectful and damaging comments potentially have been broadcast to thousands of citizens,” Sabatke said. “To present this to the public and media is inexcusable …”
Sabatke also cited a list of synonyms for the word “ignominious” to demonstrate the level of insult leveled at him by Johnson. That list included: “humiliating · undignified · embarrassing · mortifying · shameful · disgraceful · dishonorable · discreditable · ignoble · inglorious · abject · sorry · wretched · miserable · pitiful · humiliatory”
Residents react to rift at City Hall
In response to Johnson’s summary report of the Nov. 9 Council meeting, and the publication of that summary in the previously outlined places, area residents reacted, criticizing Johnson – on social media, verbally, and in some cases, in writing. One resident sent an email to the members of the Personnel and Finance Committee the evening of Nov. 10 and then copied in the Council President and the Mayor.
“This is the last straw of disrespect, defamation, and dishonesty shown by City Administrator Dave Johnson,” resident Lori Anderson-Malm said, going on to suggest that Sabatke would be within his rights to file a defamation of character and libel suit against Johnson and that Johnson should be terminated for the incident. “This type of libel would not be tolerated at any company when an employee defames a member of the board. The last paragraph of Mr. Johnson’s summary is false and disrespectful, he not only violates the ‘Values Statements for City Government,’ the ‘Rules of Civility,’ but section 23-10-2 in the City Hand Book; Social Media Policy.”
“It’s bad enough this summary was emailed to a number of citizens, radio, and television stations, but it was posted on the City’s Facebook page as well as on the front page of the City website,” she said. “This shows utter disrespect by a City employee, when ironically, in a few paragraphs before Mr. Johnson’s opinion, the Council passed numerous incentives to attract and maintain City employees. How in the world does the City expect to attract and maintain employees when the City Administrator acts in an unprofessional manner?”
“As one last slap in the face,” Malm said, “Mr. Johnson revised his original statement on Facebook and put his opinion at the bottom of the paragraph regarding the budget issues. He had the opportunity to apologize and retract his statement regarding Mr. Sabatke but he did not.”
She went on to describe other issues. “Mr. Johnson … has been disrespectful and condescending when speaking to City Council members. He has had numerous complaints regarding his communication skills and nothing has been done. … This behavior is unacceptable for any City employee,” she said. “There needs to be total agreement in how employees, citizens, committee members, and Council members are treated. Without respect by upper management, there isn’t much chance of attracting employees or the ability to keep employees.”
Two days later, Johnson emails apology
Two days later, on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2021, Johnson emailed Sabatke [and copied in what appears to be the list of those who received his original summary report via email] saying, “I have admitted and publicly apologized for my error in the sequence of events concerning your motion to defund the City Administrator position at the Nov. 9, 2021 Common Council Meeting.”
“I further apologize for any misunderstanding over my use of the term ignominiously, and it’s meaning, in my Common Council report dated Nov. 10, 2021,” he said.
Johnson went on to share definitions of the word ignominious from four dictionaries: Collins Dictionary, Macmillion Dictionary, Free Dictionary, and another definition that was not specifically cited.
“Your failed action to defund the City Administrator position does fit the definition and was not meant to be demeaning or disrespectful,” Johnson said to Sabatke in his apology email. “I trust that this puts this misunderstanding to rest,” he concluded in his email to Sabatke.
When asked for further clarification about his word choice, Johnson said his use of the word ignominiously was intended to mean “It was an unsuccessful attempt at an action that garnered no support.”
In an email reply to Johnson, Sabatke did accept the apology saying, “David, I accept in the spirt of cooperation and projecting a positive image for the City.”