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Oct
26
2021
Village Council

Council reviews ethics rules

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Should the Village of Yellow Springs public officials and employees comply with the bare minimum ethics rules set by the State of Ohio, or hold themselves to a higher standard?

That was the question posed to Council members by Village Solicitor Breanne Parcels at their most recent meeting on Monday, June 7.

“It’s up to Council with regard to what ethical standards you adhere to,” Parcels said at the meeting. “I get a lot of ethics questions about conflicts of interest, recusals.”

The meeting was held in Council chambers for the first time since March 3, 2020. Attendees could also participate via Zoom and livestream the meeting on several platforms.

Parcels wrote in a memo to Council  that when she was appointed as solicitor in July 2020, there were two Ohio Ethics Commission investigations involving local public officials or employees. One, she noted, was resolved as an “unfounded allegation,” while the other has “not yet become a matter of public record.”

A News public record request to the commission for the closed case was not filled by press time.

Parcels added that local values and good intentions don’t preclude ethics obligations, especially when recent cases of alleged corruption at the state level and in other municipalities have been national news.

“We cannot and should not consider ourselves immune from ethics quandaries merely because the Village government strives to implement progressive, dynamic ideals,” she wrote.

Specifically, Council is looking at requiring at least one hour of training from the Ohio Ethics Commission within 60 days of when an employee is hired or an elected or appointed official is sworn in. An additional half-hour training would be required at least once every three years, with potential penalties including someone being removed from an appointed position or local employment.

Council Member Laura Curliss was critical of the measure on several accounts. First, she worried that the issue came not from Council, but from the solicitor. She also said it was “totally redundant” with existing state ethics laws and could instead be put in place as a Village policy that covers the actions of employees. Curliss worried that the Village would have to investigate local complaints, instead of the Ohio Ethics Commission.

“I’m not sure we have anybody qualified to enforce,” Curliss said. “Then we’d have to hire somebody.”

Language in a local ethics ordinance could spell out a clear procedure for reporting possible violations to the Ohio Ethics Commission, Parcels later added.

“The [Ohio] Ethics Commission would still be the investigatory arm,” she said.

In the case of an allegation of unethical behavior, the Ohio Ethics Commission could say the matter is outside the statute of limitations, issue a reprimand and “public statement of settlement” or refer the matter to the Greene County Prosecutor, she said.

As for whether the employee would keep their job, Village Manager Josué Salmerón said, “some [cases] would be clear grounds for dismissal, while others would make it a difficult determination.”

If the Village did their own enforcement of ethics violations, they would have to keep a separate category for “records classification,” Parcels added.

Council Clerk Judy Kintner said she was in favor of the training obligation with a stronger enforcement mechanism, saying the Village has “had pushback from folks who did not want to take the training.” In general, she wanted the Village to be “a little firmer” on the matter.

“It’s easy to step over an ethical line without realizing that you are doing it,” she said. “The more training that you are doing, the more protection you have.”

Parcels added that Planning Commission and the Board of Zoning Appeals members specifically could benefit from ethics training requirements, since they “sit in a quasi-judicial capacity.”

“They have a little more to worry about with regard to keeping bias or neutrality before it comes to them,” she said.

In her memo, Parcels shared ethics ordinance language from various Onio municipalities, including Bexley, Cuyahoga Falls, Dayton, Highland Heights, Hillsboro, Lakewood, Newark and Toledo.

Council Member Lisa Kreeger said she was grateful to see what other communities were doing, but wasn’t clear why Yellow Springs needed to establish it as an ordinance.

“But I do strongly agree that it’s a good idea to have the training,” she said.

The draft ordinance states that it would help “ensure that all officials and employees conduct themselves in a manner that fosters public confidence in the integrity of the Village, its processes, and its endeavors by avoiding favoritism, bias and perceptions of impropriety.”

No vote was taken on the first reading of the ordinance. Council will consider another draft at an upcoming meeting.

In other Council business:

• Before the meeting, Council held an executive session for the purpose of addressing a complaint against a public official. No action was taken and no details were released.

Salmerón announced that Luciana Lieff will be the new head of the Village Mediation Program, taking over for John Gudgel. Lieff will be welcomed in her new role at a reception whose date and time are to be announced.

• Council unanimously approved an ordinance creating a local building department. It was passed in one reading as an emergency measure. Salmerón said a local department is needed “for the purpose of being able to continue the economic development projects underway and in the future.” Salmerón said that includes the planned expansion at Cresco Labs, the comedy club in the old firehouse and the Oberer housing development. The legislation was the first step in creating the department, with Council to vote later on a measure seeking certification, the adoption of state building codes and a fee schedule.

Salmerón said he wanted to “streamline the process” of plan review and inspection for construction projects.

“I’ve heard horror stories of what seems like small projects taking a very long time and slowing down economic growth,” he said, adding that it also “discourages small businesses and entrepreneurs from starting a business” in Yellow Springs.

“We anticipate the next two to three years to be a very busy time for Yellow Springs,” Salmerón added.

This reporter asked several questions such as the cost and impact on the Village administrative offices, and asked whether the feedback from local builders and architects can be shared in an public, anonymous way.

Kreeger asked about potential disadvantages, to which Salmerón replied they would include the cost of labor and expertise to respond to questions from applicants. Housh defended the idea.

“What this does is give us another tool in the toolbox. I can’t see the downside really,” he said.

Council unanimously approved $78,000 in supplemental appropriations, including $30,000 in the Planning Department for the creation of a Village building department, $28,000 for a Yellow Springs Climate Action Plan from the Electric Fund and $20,000 for the Yellow Springs–Clifton Connector Trail  project. It was passed in one reading as an emergency. According to Salmerón, the additional money for the bike trail to Clifton will come mostly from other municipalities. Council members briefly discussed the Climate Action Plan, with Curliss calling it a “back-door way of hiring a consultant.” She and Kreeger asked Salmerón to bring back a resolution affirming the decision to hire a consultant. Salmerón reported that a request for proposals for the work had already gone out. MacQueen, who has been working on the plan for the Environmental Commission, affirmed its importance.

“I can’t think of anything more important than working on climate action and sustainability,” she said.

• Council approved in a 4–0 vote, a lease agreement with Community Service, Inc. (Community Solutions) for the land for the Agraria Trail, which the Village purchased from the school district earlier this year. The nonprofit will pay $2,000 annually to the Village for 15 years to use the land for its trail, which will cover half of the $60,000 cost the Village incurred to buy the land. Curliss recused herself from the discussion and vote, as she has performed legal work for the organization.

• Village Solicitor Breanne Parcels updated Council on the Kingwood Solar project, a 175-megawatt solar photovoltaic array slated for 1,300 acres just southeast of the village. The deadline is nearing for the Village to decide whether it will formally intervene in the process, which will allow it to testify during hearings. Previously, Parcels said the Village had no grounds to intervene because the project was outside of municipal limits.

Council briefly discussed allowing virtual public meetings on a permanent basis. The Village held virtual meetings starting in March 2020 due to the state of emergency declared in Ohio and the Village based on the spread of COVID-19. Those states of emergencies were lifted on June 2, 2021, and virtual meetings of public organizations are only permitted through the end of the month. However, Salmerón said that participation in Council meetings was higher when they were held only on Zoom. Three members of the public attended the June 7 meeting in Council chambers, all in person. Council members went on to discuss the possibility of allowing Council members to participate via Zoom if they are out of the state or physically unable to be present. Curliss said she worried it would allow Council members to avoid public scrutiny in person. From the floor, Mitzi Miller said that some people have difficulty navigating online meetings and preferred the in-person format.

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