Hillsboro mayor Justin Harsha and safety and service director Brianne Abbott address council at their first meeting as (background, l-r) council member Brandon Leeth, clerk Kimberly Newman, council member Adam Wilkin and Hillsboro police chief Eric Daniels look on. (HCP Photos/Caitlin Forsha)
Hillsboro mayor Justin Harsha and safety and service director Brianne Abbott address council at their first meeting as (background, l-r) council member Brandon Leeth, clerk Kimberly Newman, council member Adam Wilkin and Hillsboro police chief Eric Daniels look on. (HCP Photos/Caitlin Forsha)
Hillsboro city council members welcomed a new mayor, auditor and safety and service director as well as a new councilman at their Jan. 13 meeting.

Council member Dane Allard, who was formerly a member of the Hillsboro planning commission, was sworn in as a Hillsboro city council member earlier this month, according to safety and service director Brianne Abbott. Tom Eichinger, Hillsboro council president, welcomed Allard to council at the opening of Monday night’s meeting.

“Congratulations, and thanks for joining us,” Eichinger told Allard. “He’s taking our mayor’s former position on council, and we’re glad to have him.”

Council heard opening remarks from the new administrators as well as updates on ongoing city projects throughout the meeting. In his first address as mayor, Justin Harsha gave an update on various topics, including the demolition of city buildings, recent meetings and events in the city, personnel and other information.

Among the highlights of the mayor’s report were:

• Harsha asked Eichinger if council could reauthorize administration to spend funds for the demolition of the Parker House “when we can do that.” As previously reported, counsel for the city and for the building’s longtime owner Jack Hope have each filed affidavits in the Highland County Recorder’s Office after the city claimed they never agreed to a transfer of the hotel property.

Former Hillsboro mayor Drew Hastings had alleged during the Sept. 10 city council meeting that the Hope family, who own the property at 137 West Main Street, “prepared a deed, signed it over to us without anybody accepting it, took it to the county and had it recorded and had it put in our name.” A counter affidavit filed by Hope’s power of attorney argues that “on April 29, 2019, the City of Hillsboro entered into a contract with Jack I. Hope, by and through his Power of Attorney Linda Doerger, whereby … Hope agreed to donate, and the City of Hillsboro agreed to accept,” the Parker House property.”

Hastings told council at their December 2019 meeting that the Parker House issue is “caught up in legal” proceedings.

“We’ve already gotten permission to use the funds before, but I want to ask again,” Harsha said Monday. “People are really concerned with the walls, and it’s something that needs to be taken care of.”

Eichinger said that the money “was allocated last year” and should not be a problem “unless council has an issue with having approved it already.”

“Fred [Beery, law director] just suggested that moving forward with new administration, just to do a reauthorization,” Harsha said.

Eichinger asked council to do a voice vote, with all six council members in attendance voting to re-approve the allocation of funds.

• On a similar note, Harsha said that the previous administration advocated for the demolition of the Gross-Feibel building and that he agrees that it is “something the city needs to address.” He said that he and public works superintendent Shawn Adkins did “a walk-through” at the property and that the city needs to work on “a plan” moving forward.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” Harsha said. “I think there’s a lot we could do in-house and maybe save some money.”

• The city is working to alleviate records retention issues on the second floor of the city building.

“We did get rid of one dump truck full of things we were able to get rid of, and we’re going to be working on some disposals on some old computers and things like that,” Harsha said. “It’s going to take some time, but at least we’re starting on it.”

• Administrative assistant and grant writer Kirby Ellison has moved to a larger office in the city building (formerly occupied by Hillsboro police chief and systems administrator Eric Daniels), with Adkins moving into Ellison’s old office.

• The city is working with Jane Tissot of Tissot’s Home Center to obtain quotes to replace the carpet at the city building, as Donley told Harsha it was the office’s original carpet.

• Harsha and other new administrators recently met with U.S. Rep. Brad Wenstrup.

• The city’s new loader was recently delivered to the garage. Council voted in October 2019 to authorize an agreement for Komatsu WA2 00-8 high lift wheel loader.

• On New Year’s Eve, Harsha both rang in the new year at the bell in front of the Highland County Historical Society’s Highland House Museum and went on a ride-along with Hillsboro police officer Andrew Gosink.

“There was not a whole lot of excitement, but it was nice to be able to sit in the cruiser and talk to one of the officers on duty,” Harsha said. “We had a really good talk, and it was nice.”

Harsha added that he will continue to check in with Hillsboro police officers and dispatchers.

• As part of the previously reported commitment to improved communication, Harsha told council that he and other administrators want to “let council know what is going on” with updates on various meetings.

• Harsha worked with law enforcement with a recent crisis drill at Hillsboro High School, where he said he volunteered to portray an active shooter. “It’s really nice to be a part of something where they’re trying to train the teachers and all the administration out there, and that’s just going to build on what I’d like to have with the school,” Harsha said. “I want a lot more interaction between the city and the school.”

• • •

To open the safety and service director’s report, Abbott thanked council members, administration and city for their support in her new role, along with thanking former safety and service director Dick Donley for his work for the city.

“It is truly an honor to be here, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity,” Abbott said. “We are looking forward to getting to work on some exciting projects in the near future and to continue the efforts of many before us.”

Abbott reported the following:

• The city has removed the signs implemented by the previous administration at the city’s entrances, including what she called “drug signs.” As previously reported, in 2015, the city installed signs with a skull and crossbones reading “The citizens of Hillsboro warn you. If you sell drugs here, we will put you away. This means you.” Abbott said “new, aesthetically pleasing signs” will be installed in their place.

• On Jan. 2, Harsha swore in Hillsboro police officer Jeremy Conley as well as council members Allard and Eichinger.

• A blighted house on West North Street has been approved for demolition, which “is still in progress,” Abbott said.

• Evans Landscaping crews are working on the courthouse fountain “this week, and I believe it’s going to continue this spring as well,” Abbott said.

• The first phase of the city’s storm sewer project will “begin in the coming weeks.”

• Abbott encouraged the community to visit Harmony Lake at Liberty Park. “There’s some newly paved trails and restrooms, and it’s really looking nice out there,” she said.

• The city is hoping to “finalize the Imagine Hillsboro project” in the near future.

• • •

Hillsboro city auditor Alex Butler told council that he would be submitting “the four standard reports that have been provided to council in the past,” including the bank, fund, revenue and expense reports for the city.

“It is honor to sit in this seat tonight, and I don’t take it lightly,” Butler said of his first council meeting as city auditor. “What a privilege to be able to run for office and to be elected to office. On different occasions when I’m invited to speak at a school function, I always tell the kids that of the entire world, they are from Hillsboro, Ohio. You could be from anywhere, but you’re from on this little dot on the map called Hillsboro, and that means something.”

Butler said he believes in the Biblical example of “servant-leadership” and that “our positions are not about the authority or prestige, but all about the people and making Hillsboro a better place. Let us never forget who we serve or who finances our paychecks.”

Along with making Hillsboro a better place, Butler said he hoped that citizens “feel confident in … their local government.”

“I want them to see cooperation, wisdom, honesty and transparency from everyone here, and hard work,” Butler said. “I want them to feel like we have our act together, that we know what we’re doing and that we work for them.”

Butler invited council to reach out to him with any questions on the financial reports. He concluded his comments by thanking former longtime city auditor Gary Lewis for being “a tremendous help in this transition.”

“I’ve got him on speed dial,” Butler said. “He’s been a great resource for me.”

• • •

In the standing committee reports, committee chair Brandon Leeth reported that the utilities committee met to discuss a request from the Highland County commission for the city to pay the water and sewer utilities at the Highland County Justice Center. Leeth said that according to his discussion with Highland County commissioner Gary Abernathy, “the county pays all other costs associated with the Justice Center, i.e. electric, phone, upkeep. In turn, the commissioners were requesting the city to pay the remaining 10 percent of the utility bill — water and sewer.”

“The committee is willing to OK the city incurring 100 percent of the cost of the water and sewer at the Justice Center,” Leeth said. According to Leeth, official legislation is expected to be presented at city council’s February meeting.

“We may have to revisit the sewer issues, and this was a special note taken due to the fact there’s been a couple pumps that have clogged up due to large debris being put in the sewer,” Leeth said. “You can flush a six-foot wool blanket down one of these toilets.

“That’s what you can find in a sewer coming down the pipe from the jail. We might need to revisit that.”

Leeth also gave an update on storm sewer assessment fees, both discussing a recent meeting with the Highland County Water Company and addressing other recent appeals from various businesses and organizations. Leeth said that Robert Smith, assistant general manger of Highland County Water, attended the meeting to ask “why they are having to pay a fee when they are not entirely in the city limits” and “how the water company is going to benefit.”

“Throughout last year, we had several meetings where the public was invited to, and we also talked about it at council, what all our plans were going to be with the stormwater assessment program and overall, the benefits to the whole entire city of Hillsboro,” Leeth said. “We informed Rob what the fees were and talked about what we were going to do in regards to the storm sewer and discussed the improvements that were going to be made.”

Leeth said that Smith questioned the city’s “ERU calculation,” which the city reviewed and verified that it is correct.

“Pretty much the only fact that someone can dispute, as far as it goes, is how we came up with our fee,” Leeth said.

As previously reported, the Highland County Fair Board and Southern State Community College both have appealed the stormwater utility charge. Leeth said he would be “reaching out to those folks” as well as to the Hillsboro Elks, whom he said also sent an appeal.

As previously reported, council voted 6-0 in August to establish a stormwater utility in the city of Hillsboro.

The utility is funded by local property owners, as “all properties having impervious area within the city shall be assigned an Equivalent Residential Unit (ERU), or a multiple thereof, which will be at a minimum one ERU.” An ERU is “equal to 2,899 square feet of measured impervious area and is equal to the average amount of impervious area of typical residential properties within the city.” Property owners are charged $5 per month per ERU.

According to a letter from SSCC Vice President for Business and Finance James Buck, the college is facing an “additional charge of nearly $12,000 annually.” The letter requested “an exemption” from the stormwater utility charge. Similarly, Highland County Fair Board member Dave Stratton addressed council during the citizens’ comments portion of their October meeting, saying their stormwater system is set up away from the city’s utility and that they were being assessed a $775/month fee.

“Long story short, this has already been through council, so now that the ordinance has been in place, it’s not really a council or legislative decision,” Leeth said. “It’s more administrative, so it falls back on [Harsha and Abbott].

“As far as the ERU calculations, once they’re set and double-checked, it is kind of what it is, and everybody has to pay that fee.”

Also in the committee reports, 2020 census committee chair Day said an informational meeting for the city and county census representatives will be held at the Hi-TEC building Wednesday evening at 6 p.m. She invited anyone interested in being a “trusted voice” for the census on the city’s behalf to reach out.

• • •

Council voted to approve two separate pieces of legislation after hearing their respective third readings Monday.

The first, an ordinance to authorize sale of the city interest in the old firehouse on North High Street, passed by a 5-1 vote, with Day voting no. Eichinger said there have been “misunderstandings and issues concerning that [ordinance] from Paint Creek because we have a contract with them … that basically says it’s going to be 2022 before that building’s actually ours to sell.” Eichinger said the ordinance ensures the city can sell the building “at its earliest convenience once the time arrives.”

“This authorization simply puts in place the necessary ordinance so that when the time comes, the city can move and sell the property,” Eichinger said. “It doesn’t mean anything can happen right now.”

Day asked if it the building would be sold through an auction or sealed bids. “The ordinance states sealed bids,” Harsha said.

Council then voted 5-1 to approve the ordinance.

The second piece of legislation with its third reading Monday was a resolution to adopt a policy to permit employees who separate from the City for reasons other than termination for disciplinary violations to acquire personal property at fair market value. The resolution was proposed in October after the mayor said he wanted to keep his current laptop from the city after leaving office at the end of the year.

Council voted 6-0 to approve the resolution, with no discussion.

Council also approved all four resolutions receiving their first reading Monday, each by a 6-0 vote.

• The first, a resolution to enter into an agreement with the Highland County Commissioners to provide legal counsel to indigent persons charged with serious offenses and loss of liberty offenses in Municipal Court, marked a change from previous similar legislation, according to Eichinger. It was presented as an emergency measure.

The resolution is for the city to “enter into an agreement with the Highland County commissioners [and] the Ohio Public Defender … for the provision of counsel to indigent persons in criminal cases.”

“Isn’t that something that’s already provided to people without the ability to pay?” Day asked.

“It’s provided at the county level,” Eichinger said. “From what we were told from our legal counsel, this is new for the city to be involved in it.”

The Highland County Press has reached out to city law director Fred Beery for clarification.

• Council also approved a resolution naming Shawn Adkins as the City of Hillsboro’s appointment to the District 15 Public Works Integrating Committee. Harsha said that the safety and service director previously served as the city’s representative on that committee, but “it seemed fitting” that Adkins accept that role.

• Council voted to authorize the Safety & Service Director to enter into a contract with Stantec Consulting Service Inc. for the design and engineering for Phase III Storm Sewer Improvements in an amount not to exceed $208,000. The contract includes approximately 9,500 LF of storm sewer, 82 catch basins and 28,800 LF of curb in the amount of $208,000, according to the resolution.

• Council also passed legislation regarding the zoning for the Marriott hotel project near the intersection of state Route 73 and Harry Sauner Road and heard information on the hotel TIF (tax increment financing) district. For more on that portion of Monday night’s meeting, see: http://highlandcountypress.com/Content/In-The-News/In-The-News/Article/Discussions-on-Hillsboro-Marriott-development-continue-with-TIF-presentation-council-approval-of-zoning-change/2/20/54854.

• Under new business, council received a liquor license request from the new Red Shed Legendary BBQ restaurant on Harry Sauner Road. Eichinger asked if council or anyone in attendance Monday had an objection to the license. Council member Mary Stanforth said that she did not object but asked if it was a new license or a transfer of an existing license. Eichinger said that information was not provided.

The council president said the city would “return the paperwork to them and say there are no objections.”

• Council voted 6-0, by voice vote, at the beginning of the meeting to appoint Leeth as council president pro tempore, following a motion by Ann Morris. Harsha had formerly served as president pro tem.

• Council also voted 6-0 to excuse the absence of Claudia Klein, who was unable to attend due to illness.

• Council also heard the second reading of a modification to city ordinances in sections 35.90 and 116.10 of the city code. There was no discussion on that ordinance.

• • •

During the citizens’ comments portion of the meeting, a Hillsboro resident, Ronald Smith, said that he filed a “criminal charge” Monday against Hillsboro police chief Eric Daniels, although Daniels clarified it was a complaint.

Smith alleged that he and his son were assaulted in a Hillsboro business parking lot in October and alleged that Daniels “failed to retain the shovel” that was “used against” Smith in the alleged assault. Smith accused Daniels of “tampering with evidence.” After reading definitions of tampering with evidence from the Ohio Revised Code, Smith began to question Daniels regarding the shovel before Eichinger asked him, “What, exactly, is the point you’re trying to make?”

Smith responded by asking if the Hillsboro police personnel complaint form was approved by city council and/or city law director Fred Beery and is “a legal document.” Harsha said he did not know, while Daniels said he did not think it required the law director’s approval.

Smith then continued to speak about the alleged assault and alleged tampering with evidence incident, until Eichinger interrupted him that it was “not the place” for his allegations.

“My rights under Marsy’s Law as a victim of a crime are being violated every day,” Smith told the council president.

“Again, this is not the forum,” Eichinger said.

Smith said he would say “one more thing” and asked Daniels if he received the “criminal charge” filed against him today.

“There’s no criminal charge,” Daniels said. “I’ve seen your complaint.”

Smith asked Harsha if the police or an “outside agency” investigates “criminal offenses” filed on the police department’s personnel complaint form, which is what he filed Monday morning.

“To be honest with you, the first I’m hearing about this is today, so I’m not really up to speed,” Harsha said.

Smith began to reference “the previous administration,” which Eichinger said was “immaterial.”

“I don’t think you can go to the previous administration issues, and I really think that this needs to be handled in a legal situation, either with our law director or some other legal source,” Eichinger said. “This is not something that council can do anything about at this point.”

Smith asked if the mayor and safety and service director would look into his complaint form and “make sure it’s brought to justice.”

“I would be more than happy to look into the complaint,” Harsha said, adding that he would also speak with Abbott and Beery.

• • •

In a change from meetings past, there was not a Hillsboro planning commission report read during the meeting, with council instead receiving a copy of the commission’s minutes in advance of Monday’s meeting. The commission most recently met Dec. 16, where they discussed signs that were in violation of city code; the Imagine Hillsboro master plan; the Marriott Hotel project and associated zoning issues; and the 2020 planning commission schedule.