Wisconsin Dells police chief suspended for two weeks over letter in OWI case

October 5, 2018

The Wisconsin Dells Common Council voted unanimously Oct. 1 to suspend Police Chief Jody Ward without pay for two weeks.

Ward accepted the suspension agreement, and will be suspended from 12:01 a.m. Oct. 11 through 12:59 p.m. Oct. 25.

According to the agreement, Ward’s suspension is connected to a letter he wrote in his capacity as police chief that was cited during the drunken driving sentencing of James S. Connors, 56, the co-owner and manager of Nig’s Bar in downtown Wisconsin Dells.

Connors was arrested around 11:30 p.m. Aug. 11, 2017, after being initially approached on River Road in Wisconsin Dells by an officer who cited Connors for public urination and warned him not to drive. The officer stopped and arrested Connors a short time later after Connors drove his truck out of a parking lot.

Ward wrote a letter on Wisconsin Dells Police letterhead dated Sept. 7, 2018, in support of Connors. The letter, addressed “To whom it may concern,” stated:

“I have known James (Connors) and his family for many years and he is a valuable member of the Wisconsin Dells community. He has always helped with community events and fundraisers through donations and promotions with his business. James is trustworthy and kind. I understand from talking to James and his attorney, that he is currently involved in out-patient therapy and attends bi-weekly counseling. James has made a personal promise to me that he is committed to sobriety and embarrassed by his past actions.”

Ward continued by stating his belief that Connors would, if “given the opportunity to serve his sentence in an electronic monitoring capacity, his future progress with maintaining his sobriety will be enhanced through family and peer support.”

The letter was cited by both Connor’s defense attorney Paul Polacek, and Columbia County Circuit Court Judge W. Andrew Voigt, the sentencing judge for the case.

“There is no question that what is proposed here is at the bottom end of what any judge would consider appropriate,” said Voigt in remarks about the sentencing of Connors. “I have not gotten a letter before from a chief of police testifying to the character of a multiple OWI offender.”

Sentencing guidelines for a sixth offense of operating while intoxicated range from six months in jail (the mandatory minimum sentence) to 10 years in jail, a fine of $600 to $25,000, two to three years of license revocation (plus confinement time), and the use of either an ignition interlock device or 24/7 sobriety program for one to three years (plus confinement time).

Connors was sentenced Sept. 18 and given a withheld sentence, three years probation, six months conditional jail time, three years license revocation, and three years required use of an ignition interlock device. Connors also was granted work release privileges as part of the jail time that allows him to continue managing Nig’s Bar.

The suspension agreement states media coverage of the letter and its use in the sentencing of Connors “generated public comment and controversy detrimental to the image, reputation and interests of the city and the police department.”

A special meeting of the Wisconsin Dells Common Council was held Oct. 1, during which the common council went into closed session for about 15 minutes before emerging with a unanimous vote to agree to Chief Ward’s voluntary suspension.

“We had to take action, and we did,” said Wisconsin Dells Mayor Edward Wojnicz.

Wisconsin Dells City Attorney Joseph Hasler, said, “The suspension agreement speaks for itself.” Hasler declined further comment.

Ward was not able to be reached for comment at the time of publication.

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