In front of more than a dozen witnesses, Brigham City Mayor Dennis Fife allegedly grabbed the arm of Councilwoman Ruth Jensen on Wednesday night while the pair argued after a Box Elder County Commission meeting. Within an hour, Jensen contacted Brigham City police, filing a police report and launching a criminal investigation.
"This isn't a freaking reality show, it's city business that we're trying to conduct," Jensen said in a phone interview. "It's disgusting to me how he treats people."
Mayors and several council members from Brigham City, Perry and Willard attended Wednesday's meeting to discuss metropolitan planning and whether to join the Bear River Association of Governments (BRAG) or the Wasatch Front Regional Council (WFRC).
Because the incident is being investigated for possible assault charges, the police report is not yet available. The department said in a statement that the investigation will be conducted by an outside police agency, then reviewed by an independent law firm.
As mayor of a conservative city with a small-town feel, Fife found himself in the spotlight last December after confessing an extramarital affair with a woman he had formerly counseled as an LDS bishop. He managed to stay on as mayor in spite of demands that he resign, but Wednesday's altercation could lead to new questions about his judgment.
According to Jensen, she and Fife disagreed about which planning association to join. Fife publicly questioned her truthfulness, she said, when she told commissioners that she and two other Brigham City council members preferred going with WFRC.
"He interrupted me and said it wasn't true," Jensen said, adding that Fife said the council leaned toward BRAG.
No decisions were made during the session, but as Jensen made her way toward commissioners after the meeting, she stopped to confront Fife.
"I said that the next time he says out loud that what I'm saying is not true, he'll have to provide facts to support it," Jensen said. "He grabbed my arm and said. 'you go ahead and do that.' I told him never to touch me again."
The intensity of the moment caught Jensen off guard.
"I was flabbergasted," Jensen said. "It was so raw, no one knew what to do."
Reached Friday, Fife said the incident is being blown out of proportion and that it occurred differently than Jensen describes.
"She was standing to the side of me yelling, saying I called her a liar and threatening me," Fife said. "It was just a reflex to put my hand on her arm."
Jensen then said "don't touch me, don't ever touch me," Fife said. "I took my hand off and said 'whatever' and walked away."
He also remembers their disagreement during the meeting differently.
"She stated that she had talked with three council members who wanted to go with WFRC," Fife said. "So I made the comment that she does not speak for the council, and it was inappropriate for her to talk before they'd taken a vote."
Brigham City resident Becky Maddox attended the meeting and said that she believes Fife's behavior is just starting to cross the line.
"With the difficulties that the mayor has brought upon himself, my opinion is that he was trying to intimidate her," Maddox said.
To his chagrin, Mike Nelson, associate editor of the Box Elder News Journal, had just put his camera equipment away when the incident occurred.
"For both parties, I would classify the behavior as highly emotional and confrontational," Nelson said.County commissioners were more tight-lipped because of the open investigation. Stan Summers, who has been on the job for six months, called the incident shocking and unfortunate.
"It makes me sad because we have municipalities up here where no one filed for council or mayor," Summers said, musing that such incidents could discourage people from serving in public office.
At any rate, physical contact for elected officials appears to be a downright touchy subject.
"As elected officials, we need to be careful and professional," said Commissioner LuAnn Adams.
On the Box Elder News Facebook page, residents are responding to news of the altercation:
Heather McFall O'Grady • "I think Mayor Fife needs a lesson in keeping his body parts to himself. Thank you Ruth Jensen for representing this brighamite and putting up with all the BS."
Debbie Pettingill Nelson • "Way to go Ruth! Nobody has to put up with that. He needs to be gone!"
Misty Hawthorne Richardson • "Wow people are getting weaker and more whiny everyday. Holding someone by the arm is now assault? By those means I should have hired an attorney long ago."