By Frank Lewis
Portsmouth City Solicitor John Haas says he cannot represent Portsmouth City Council when it comes to public records requests in the future.
The controversy arose when emails between two members of city council dealing with charter amendments came to light in a story in the Daily Times on Saturday. Portsmouth Mayor (Sixth Ward Councilman) Steve Sturgill and Vice-Mayor (First Ward Councilman) Kevin W. Johnson had exchanged a series of emails discussing changing the positions of city solicitor (City Attorney) and city auditor (City Treasurer) from elected to hired by city council and a charter amendment rescinding Sections 87 and 89 which deal with the staffing levels in the police department and the fire department respectively. Those sections call for 44 personnel in each of those departments.
“council has placed my office in an untenable position,” Haas said. “I cannot assist council on public records requests because the subject of the requests deals with an attempt to do away with my office and place the city’s legal counsel under the control and power of city council. I think that’s the last thing the city needs a lawyer hired and fired by city council at this point.” He went to say, “city council knows that I will not be providing any legal advice on these issues and it will need to hire outside counsel from here on out on the public records requests, and anything that develops from there on.”
Haas began his comments portion of the meeting with a scathing assessment of the actions of unnamed members of city council.
“As the solicitor for the city of Portsmouth, I believe it’s my obligation to represent the interests of the citizens of Portsmouth first and foremost,” Haas said. “Normally that’s my obligation, and my obligation to advise city council align and aren’t the source of any consternation on my part. However, I will say that the recent actions by several members of Portsmouth City council in holding meetings in violation of the Ohio Open Meetings Act, the destruction of public records in violation of Ohio’s Sunshine Laws, the refusal to comply with a Public Records Request, violated the charter by meeting with department heads and employees, in some instances without the knowledge of the city manager and in other instances in direct conflict with requests by the city manager not to do so, has created a situation and I have witnessed the destruction of the city manager’s credibility within the ranks of the city employees.”
Haas said further that he believes the circulation of emails that were passed back and forth between members of council has renewed a lack of trust of city council, which he said he believed, prior to the action, was “on the mend.”
“I am concerned that as this matter proceeds, the damage that certain members of this council has caused to be irreparable,” Haas said. “Since the city manager has come on board here, our offices have been inundated with work from council on items that have absolutely nothing to do with items that concern and were identified to the city manager during his interview process. The city manager, despite his distractions has tried to forge ahead, and on a daily basis requested legal opinions from my office in matters ranging from building collapses to employee issues to contracts to good advertisement to property issues, health insurance issues and on and on and on.”
Haas said what he termed “the secret actions of Council” that came to light in the 100-plus pages of emails provided thus far in response to the public records requests have accomplished two major points.
“First, the council has undermined the authority of the city manager, as noted in one of the emails - ‘Don’t worry about him. We’ll lead, he’ll follow.’ One wonders how Mr. Allen can manage to drag himself out of the situation these statements have created,” Haas said. “I hope for his sake and for the sake of the city, he can recover .”
The second point dealt with Haas announcing he cannot represent council when it comes to working with them on the charter amendments in question.
Haas said it is his opinion city council has hampered the day-to-day management of the city.
“I say all this because I’m imploring you, as members of council, to let the man do his job,” Haas said.
City Manager Derek Allen also commented on the emails that came to light and the effect it has had on his ability to do his job. Allen first clarified that an earlier statement he made about the city not being able to afford the 88 positions was taken out of context by some members of council, stating that affording those positions was why he has come up with recommendations for increased revenue such as cutting the income tax credit for those living and working in two jurisdictions.
“There has been such upheaval in this past week and I have viewed it as my ability to manager the work force has been seriously impaired,” Allen said. “I don’t know why, if I was hired to manage the city, why I wouldn’t have been included in a discussion with my very own employees. I want to say that respectfully. You are my bosses. I work for you and I intend to do the very best job that I can for the city of Portsmouth. But at the same time, I do not want things that I say somehow twisted. And I also don’t appreciate the fact that things are going on that I’m not aware of and that I’m not included in.”
Fourth Ward Councilman Jim Kalb asked if it would be the job of the city manager to find outside counsel to represent council to which Haas responded that it would be the job of council to find counsel with respect to the public records requests.
Both Second Ward Councilman Rich Saddler and Third Ward Councilman Kevin E. Johnson offered a vote of confidence for the job Allen has done since coming on board four months ago.
Sturgill and Kevin W. Johnson made no comments on the topic during the meeting.
Frank Lewis can be reached at 740-353-3101, Ext. 252, or on Twitter @FrankLewispdt.