FARGO — Fargo police chief candidates and city leaders are not discussing the selection process or responding to questions about the finalists' backgrounds.

But some of the contenders’ former bosses vouched for them with good reviews, including one who oversaw a police department an Arkansas mayor said was "trying to stab people in the back."

The Fargo Police Chief Selection Committee has chosen John Franklin of Chicago, Stacy Kelly of Scottsdale, Ariz., and David Zibolski of Beloit, Wis., as three finalists who will come to town next week for a round of interviews. The candidates will participate in ride-alongs on Tuesday, Aug. 18, partake in tours on Wednesday, and go through interviews on Thursday, which are open to the public, Fargo city spokesman Ty Filley said.

In an attempt to find more information about their pasts, The Forum reached out to the candidates to discuss complaints and accomplishments at previous jobs, as well as leadership styles. All three declined to comment.

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“Fargo has requested that we hold off on talking to the media at this time,” Kelly, a former assistant chief for the Newport News Police Department in Virginia, wrote in an email.

Mayor Tim Mahoney declined to comment on the candidates and the process of choosing them, citing confidentiality concerns and an investigation into releasing the name of an applicant before the finalists were selected. Filley also turned down requests by The Forum to speak with other members of the committee and city leaders about the search to find retired Police Chief David Todd's successor.

“The City of Fargo and Police Chief Selection Committee will not be providing additional comment regarding the search process at this time,” Filley said in an email.

When asked if the city told candidates not to comment about the search, Filley said, “The three finalists were informed they are under no obligation to respond to media inquiries at this time; however, they are free to provide comment if they desire to do so.”

'He was in an unfair position'

John Franklin
John Franklin

The three candidates have decades of law enforcement experience. Franklin started as a patrol officer in 1982 in Chicago, moving his way up through the ranks until he became the police chief in 2013 for Dolton, Ill., a suburb village in Chicago, according to his resume.

A number of complaints filed against him in Chicago were unfounded, except for one listed as miscellaneous. He faced no punishment for it. The Forum was unable to obtain a copy of the complaint by publication time.

Dolton, a village of about 22,500 residents, did not provide records of complaints against Franklin by publication time, nor did its mayor, Riley Rogers, return a message left by The Forum.

Franklin was named in several lawsuits during his time in Dolton. A federal lawsuit alleged he told an officer he was not promoted to full-time duty because Franklin didn’t believe the Dolton Police and Fire Board would not approve the officer because of his age. A jury ruled in favor of Franklin and the city.

In another suit, former Dolton Police Chief Ronald Burge Sr. claimed he was fired after he sent an officer to ticket the mayor’s campaign vehicle for illegal parking. Burge’s son also was fired after the mayor was elected, according to media reports.

Franklin, who succeeded Burge as police chief, allegedly said “that they got his daddy and now they got him.” A U.S. district judge ultimately dismissed the lawsuit.

Franklin left the Dolton Police Department in 2015, according to his resume. His next law enforcement job came in June 2018, when he was hired as police chief in Jacksonville, Ark., a city of about 28,000 residents. About 17 months later, Mayor Bob Johnson asked him to resign.

City attorney Stephanie Friedman detailed a number of complaints regarding the police department in a July 22, 2019, email, about four months before Franklin resigned in November. The allegations included homophobic and sexist commentary, promising promotions to officers before a “promotion list” was created, playing favorites and leaking confidential information to the public.

An email from the Jacksonville, Ark., city attorney details allegations about the city's police department when it was led by Chief John Franklin. Photo Credit to KARK-TV
An email from the Jacksonville, Ark., city attorney details allegations about the city's police department when it was led by Chief John Franklin. Photo Credit to KARK-TV

The email didn’t explicitly say Franklin made homophobic and sexist comments, only that they were unacceptable and that there were multiple complaints.

Friedman did not return messages left by The Forum requesting records of the complaints or inquiring about whether they were founded. Johnson said he doesn’t know how true the allegations were, but he suggested the department was “trying to stab people in the back.”

“He’s a great guy, just enjoyable to be with,” Johnson said of Franklin. “He came into a very, very difficult situation.”

Franklin was one of five chiefs hired in Jacksonville since 2017. Johnson said the department he inherited was in turmoil, making it hard for an outsider to fix it.

“He really never got the ability to do what he truly could do,” Johnson said. “He was in an unfair position.”

When asked why he asked Franklin to resign, Johnson said the department’s situation wasn’t changing for the better. The department has improved since the current chief has taken over, Johnson said.

'Very steady, even-tempered'

Stacy Kelly
Stacy Kelly

Kelly spent almost his entire career with the Newport News Police Department, which patrols a city of 180,700 residents in Virginia. He left in 2017 for a position at Axon, a training and manufacturing company formerly known as Taser, a popular brand of stun guns.

Virginia does not fulfill records requests from out-of-state news agencies, the city of Newport News said. Retired Police Chief Richard Myers, who was Kelly’s supervisor in Newport News, said he didn’t recall any complaints against Kelly.

“One of the things that dominates my thinking about Stacy is he’s really unflappable,” Myers told The Forum. “He’s very steady, even-tempered. I’ve never seen him really lose control or get angry. He is very even-handed.”

Myers said he was always impressed by Kelly’s ability to stay calm, noting officers don’t like a leader who runs “hot and cold.” The former chief said he didn’t know enough about Fargo to say whether Kelly would be a good fit, but he said Kelly has the skill set, knowledge and experience required of a police chief.

Myers also said Kelly is ethical and could build community trust.

“Hopefully, the hiring authority there will feel that sense of connection with Stacy and he’ll do a good job as chief,” Myers said.

David Zibolski
David Zibolski

Zibolski got his start in law enforcement as a Milwaukee police aide in 1984, according to his resume. He joined the force as an officer in 1987.

He held several leadership positions in Milwaukee, including captain of police from 2005 until he left in 2011 to join the Wisconsin Department of Justice as a deputy administrator for law enforcement services. In 2015, he was hired as police chief for Beloit, Wis., a city of roughly 37,000 residents.

No complaints have been filed against Zibolski during his time as the police chief, according to an open records request. The Department of Justice and city of Milwaukee did not fulfill an open records request for complaints against Zibolski by publication time.

A Milwaukee spokesperson said the city would not comment on Zibolski’s performance or leadership skills. The Justice Department did not return messages left by The Forum seeking comment.

The Forum also attempted to reach former police chiefs for comment.