By Frank Lewis
At Monday’s Portsmouth City Council meeting, Portsmouth Vice Mayor Kevin W. Johnson announced he has enlisted the services of an attorney in response to a statement made by Portsmouth City Solicitor John Haas in reference to emails between Johnson and Mayor Steve Sturgill.
“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 went on to say that the recent actions by several members of Portsmouth City council in holding meetings were 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.
At Monday’s Council meeting, Johnson said he has complied with Haas’ advice and sought the advice of Portsmouth attorney Steven Rodeheffer — and that he will pass the costs on to the city.
Rodeheffer sent out an email responding to Haas’ accusations. He began by addressing the reference to breaching the Open Meetings Act.
“First, you allege that ‘several members of Portsmouth City Council’ held meetings in violation of the Ohio Open Meetings Act. Ohio Revised Code §121.22(C) directs that a ‘meeting’ of a public body be open to the public. It is unfortunate that you did not take the time to look at the definition of “meeting” as set forth in Ohio Revised Code §121.22(8)(2). Had you made this effort you would have seen that before a discussion between members of Council can rise to the level of a meeting that must be open to the public the discussion must involve a ‘majority’ of Council,” Rodeheffer said. “Since our City Council is made up of six individuals a majority would be at least four members. I challenge you to substantiate your allegations by citing a single instance in which a majority of the members of our Council met to discuss City business other than in the regularly scheduled and noticed Council meetings, or in some other open meeting forum.”
Rodeheffer said there is no provision in the Ohio Revised Code that prevents a minority of the members of Council from informally discussing ideas to enhance the best interests of the City and for Haas to tell the public otherwise is disingenuous. Rodeheffer said, in response to Haas’ allegations that certain members refused to comply with a public records request - “You failed to supply specifics to these allegations. My client assumes that you are referring in this allegation to the public record request made by Mr. Tony Hamilton dated April 22, 2014, to our City Clerk,” Rodeheffer said. “Although critical of the response that was made to this request, you admit that the response contained ‘100-plus pages of emails’. Your misstatement to the public also failed to mention that the requestor of these documents, Mr. Hamilton, has not registered a formal complaint regarding the materials that he has received in response to his request.
Rodeheffer said - In addition, a check with the Clerk of the Court of Common Pleas reveals that Hamilton has not found it necessary to file any legal action to compel the production of materials or documents, leaving Haas as the only one with the opinion that a controversy exists.
“Apparently, you are the only one that is dissatisfied with the extent of the response made by our City Clerk and only in your opinion does a controversy exist,” Rodeheffer said.
Rodeheffer then makes reference to Haas alleging that unnamed individuals have been involved in the destruction of public records in violation of Ohio’s Sunshine Laws, and refers to such actions as a serious offense. Rodeheffer reminded Haas that the destruction of public records is a criminal offense and as the city legal representative, it would be his responsibility to bring charges against those individuals.
Rodeheffer went on to defend members of City Council meeting with department heads, citing the City Charter that members of Council are permitted contact with employees for “the purpose of inquiry.”
Rodeheffer then goes on the offensive, while at the same time defending the actions of those members of City Council
“Your impetuous and ill-informed tirade to City Council has accomplished nothing other than to risk the resurrection of the polarization of our Council that it has experienced in the past,” Rodeheffer said.
Rodeheffer finishes by saying his final comments are directed to that portion of Haas’ speech which he says was obviously intended to drive a wedge between our new City Manager and members of Council.
“By all accounts, Mr. Allen is doing a fine job given the lack of resources and other obstacles facing him. My client, Kevin W. Johnson, fully supports Mr. Allen in his efforts to turn our City around and resents the fact that you would imply that his intentions are otherwise. Mr. Johnson and I look forward to a more informed and reasoned statement from your office that deals less with general, unsupported allegations, and more with specific ideas that can be the basis for constructive discussion of the issues you addressed. I await your response.”
Frank Lewis can be reached at 740-353-3101, Ext. 252, or on Twitter @FrankLewispdt.