Watch a recording from the Nelsonville City Council meeting in the video player above.
NELSONVILLE, Ohio (WCMH) — Days after a standing-room-only Nelsonville City Council meeting devolved into a chorus of shouts, some councilmembers remain bitterly divided on who is in charge of the rural southeastern Ohio city — which is, by most accounts, on its sixth city manager since January.
The regular Monday night meeting ended — following three tied votes, including one on whether to adjourn session — when Council President Tony Dunfee walked out the door as several residents in the crowd heckled him.
The wider question at hand just before: whether to reinstate Bernie Roell, who had served as Nelsonville city manager for just two months, after he resigned on May 15 and then tried to withdraw that resignation on May 16. Under the city charter, the 5,000-resident city does not have an elected mayor but a city manager who is hired by the legislative body.
“I have never, in all my years, witnessed anything like this boondoggle that is going on in this little town,” Councilmember Glennda Tingle said.
City manager quits, then rescinds resignation the next day
The council held an emergency general meeting the Monday before to discuss aquatic rates publicly, and in a nonpublic executive session, hammer out several other points of contention among members, according to three members of the council.
Roell, in what he said was a “knee-jerk” moment, announced that he was quitting after tensions flared between Dunfee and him. He then left Nelsonville City Hall before council returned for the rest of the meeting.
“I just said, you know what? I didn’t take this job to be abused. I just said, you know what? I resign, and my God, I didn’t know that was the death penalty,” Roell said in an interview. “As soon as word got out, I had tons of people saying, please Bernie, don’t resign, we need you; please come back.”
Roell changed his mind about 24 hours later, and informed councilmembers through an email titled “I rescind my resignation.”
Although three councilmembers answered that they were more than ready to welcome him back, according to emails obtained by NBC4, others in a lengthy chain argued he could not just take back his resignation and that Interim Nelsonville Police Chief Devon Tolliver had assumed the acting city manager role.
“This is a petty bunch of BS,” Councilmember Nancy Sonick wrote back in one exchange.
But Roell went to work at City Hall on Wednesday morning anyway, where he found himself locked out of the city manager’s office and removed from his work accounts by IT. “So then, I said I was going to be working from my home office,” he said.
City Attorney Robert Toy wrote in a legal memo Thursday that Roell’s resignation was effective immediately based on his “at-will” status and several circumstances, including that Roell left his keys and did not come to work the day directly after quitting. Toy, in the document obtained by NBC4, also wrote that the council was under no obligation to rehire Roell.
“I have never heard of someone, ever, at a job that you’re hired at rescinding your resignation after you walked out, left your keys on your secretary’s desk, and left,” Dunfee said in an interview.
But on Monday, Roell sat among members of the Council in the city manager’s chair. At least three uniformed Nelsonville police officers, including Tolliver, stood directly behind and beside the council for the duration of the meeting.
Meeting ends without much resolution
Monday night’s affair was standing room only, said longtime Nelsonville resident Lori Crook. Several residents testified about their concerns regarding the direction the city was headed in. But as motions on whether to go into executive session, adjourn, or return Roell’s keys were met with gridlock, out-of-order jeers from attendees grew louder.
One woman, who identified herself as Roell’s wife, shouted that the decision was a “double-standard” and that Dunfee was a “coward” several times as he walked out.
In late March, four members of the council — including Dunfee, Nick Smith, Gregg Clement, and Neil Sommers — also submitted short-lived notices of resignation, leaving Nelsonville City Council without a quorum and technically unable to manage city business. Days later, Dunfee, Clement, and Sommers withdrew their resignations.
At the time, Toy informed the council that because their resignations had not been officially voted on, they would be able to retain their roles.
On Tuesday morning, Roell went to his old office again, where officers barred him from entering. Later that day, Toy wrote to Roell in an email that Roell was not the city manager and could not continue to portray himself as such without the city pursuing “civil and criminal penalties.”
For now, Roell said he will wait and see what council’s next moves are. Tingle, who said she reluctantly took a role on the legislative body in February and has considered resigning herself, remains in his corner.
“I want to do everything I can to get Dr. Roell back in his legal, rightful place as city manager,” Tingle said.
A ‘toxic’ council; a revolving door among city government
Aside from six city manager changeovers in half a year, Clement said in an earlier interview he believed somewhere close to 20 members of Nelsonville City Council have left for good — either because other members voted to remove them or because they quit — since 2018.
“I don’t have the exact number. I sat down and tried to put it on paper,” Clement said.
Sommers resigned from the Council again, effective Monday. He could not be reached for comment as of Thursday night.
Officials and residents alike in interviews have called the body toxic, plagued by instability and personal conflicts of interest.
Nelsonville City Auditor Taylor Sappington said the city is in an “intense moment” but that he still feels confident about its future.
“It’s really unfortunate that the environment has become so stressful for so many,” Sappington said. “The city is financially sound, its finances are growing, and my office is prepared more so now than ever to take on challenges and threats.”
But he said he remains concerned about the city’s lack of a mission or vision — and that turnover can sometimes breed mistakes and fraud.