Pictured at the July 12 Hillsboro City Council meeting are Mayor Justin Harsha and Safety and Service Director Brianne Abbott. (HCP Photo/Caitlin Forsha.)
Pictured at the July 12 Hillsboro City Council meeting are Mayor Justin Harsha and Safety and Service Director Brianne Abbott. (HCP Photo/Caitlin Forsha.)
Months of debate and disagreement regarding a digital sign in uptown Hillsboro came to a head at the Monday, July 12 Hillsboro City Council meeting, culminating in a split vote to pass a resolution ratifying a motion made in November related to CARES Act expenditures.

Since the city used CARES Act funds to pay for a digital sign at the former Colony Theatre space — which was installed March 31 — administrators have faced allegations of a conflict of interest and criticism of the timing of various decisions and how the decisions were made, among other things.

As previously reported, at council’s April 12 meeting, council member Ann Morris asked questions about the cost of the project ($48,340) and the contractor used (Chad Abbott Signs, for $30,000). The Highland County Press also published information from Mayor Justin Harsha, Safety and Service Director Brianne Abbott, Auditor Alex Butler and Public Works Superintendent Shawn Adkins on April 13. (See https://highlandcountypress.com/Content/In-The-News/In-The-News/Article/Hillsboro-City-Council-passes-resolutions-addresses-new-city-sign/2/20/67937.)

One month later, at council’s May meeting, Morris said that upon reviewing public records, she determined that council “never did approve the Colony sign project.” She cited the council minutes from Nov. 9, which say that Resolution 20-47 was passed “for the allocation and spending of CARES Act funds” with “the details being named and added at a later time to legislation.” Although the sign was listed as a possible use for the funds, payroll expenses and a “temporary meeting space” at the city building were also listed as options.

As will be discussed later in this article, it was also later determined that Resolution 20-47 never existed.

Also at the May council meeting, Morris discussed Brianne Abbott’s involvement with the sign throughout the process. (The contractor, Chad Abbott, is the husband of the safety and service director.) Morris alleged a “conflict of interest” on Brianne Abbott’s part. Hillsboro planning commission member Tracy Aranyos also alleged the sign was “100-percent illegal” based on city code and because “proper procedure” for approving the sign was not followed.

Butler told The Highland County Press in May that “Regarding CARES ACT expenditures, the city is in full compliance with CRF [Coronavirus Relief Fund] guidance provided by the Ohio Office of Budget and Management and City Law Director Fred Beery's legal guidance.”

The latest chapter in the ongoing sign debate began Monday night at approximately 7:13 p.m., when Harsha devoted the monthly mayor’s report to addressing the allegations and to defending Brianne Abbott, who he said was not involved in the decision-making process.

Harsha told council that even before selecting Abbott as safety and service director, he met with Beery, who advised that Abbott shouldn’t “touch anything that has to do with Chad Abbott Signs” in her position.

“Any permits that come in the door, she doesn’t touch, doesn’t look at,” Harsha said. “They go straight to Shawn Adkins or Lauren Walker. They review all of it. If they approve it, I look it over, and I sign it. Nothing ever hits Bree’s desk ever.”

For the sign in particular — as Harsha told The Highland County Press in April — the mayor and Adkins were the “only” ones involved in the decision-making process, he said.

“We were talking about how we could create the marquee that was talked about years ago with CARES Act money and kill two birds with one stone,” Harsha said.

Harsha clarified that during this time, he also spent “five weeks in the hospital” with his newborn, while Adkins worked directly with Chad Abbott.

“He got an amazing quote,” Harsha said. “It was $30,000 for something that probably should have been $50,000. The city got a great deal, and we were able to create something uptown that I keep hearing that everybody hates, but all I keep hearing is how amazing it is for people to go through town and see messages and see what’s going on in the city, so I’m not really getting that people hate it.”

Brianne Abbott’s involvement with the sign, according to Harsha, came when the proposal was presented to the Design Review Board. At that time, Abbott was a member of the board.

“Shawn Adkins took the paperwork [to the board],” Harsha said. “She was there. She, at that point, decided that she wanted to donate her time for phase two, and materials, away from the city – that had nothing to do with the city whatsoever – for phase two of the project, which we’re still waiting on.”

In an effort to “remove herself from everything that’s happened,” Abbott has since rescinded the offer, so the city “has lost a donation,” Harsha added.

“Now what people see is an unfinished product, not where I want it to be today,” Harsha said. “I want it to be what it’s going to be, with the help of the Design Review Board, and they’re still working on it.

“I just want to clear the air. At no point did Bree Abbott have anything to do with this marquee. Take it for what it is.”

After Harsha’s report, council member Patty Day asked why Abbott “signed her own purchase order” if there was “no conflict of interest.”

Beery explained that for many years, city policy has been that “before a sub-department head can spend more than $1,000, they had a rule that they have to pass through the department head to sign off on the authority to spend more than $1,000.”

“It’s an employee management thing and not a decision on approval or anything like that,” Beery said. “It’s just saying, ‘Oh yeah, he has the authority to go ahead with that.”

Beery said that Abbott signed off on the paperwork “as a gatekeeping function” for something the mayor had already authorized, although he advised that Harsha should have been the one to sign it.

“We definitely will in the future,” Harsha said. “Again, I was out for a long time, got home, then I was in quarantine. There was a lot going on. I would have signed that, but at the same time, I told them today – I’m the one who gave the order to do it, so how’s my signature any better than hers? There’s no conflict whatsoever.”

Day asked, “Why has it been so difficult for this administration and legal director to admit any wrong in this situation?” She pointed to Resolution 20-47, which was passed in November and which she later “found out … didn’t even exist and had never even been written.”

Harsha declined to speak on that resolution, which he said “had nothing to do” with the city administration and would be addressed later in the meeting.

Council member Claudia Klein said that she was under the impression that the “original sign that came down from the Colony” would be eventually used in the Colony Park space and asked where that sign was. Harsha, Adkins and city economic development coordinator Kirby Ellison all indicated that the marquee was a part of the Colony Theatre’s demolition.

“That was deemed unsafe by the previous administration and not usable,” Harsha said.

Morris said that the decision was “too rushed” and criticized the design of the current marquee.

“It seems like the structure is so huge compared to the size of the sign,” she said. “It just doesn’t match up. Maybe if the structure was smaller it would blend better or something.

“I just wish we could have slowed down and taken our time.”

Day added that she thought the Design Review Board’s role was to “make suggestions,” not be a “decision-making tree.”

“I wasn’t aware that was the end-all to this communication,” Day said. “I don’t understand why we met Dec. 14, 2020 as a council and not you [Harsha] nor Bree mentioned one word about the purchase of the digital sign. But yet, two days later, Bree signs the purchase order for the sign to her own company. How can you not admit that there are some questions here?”

Day then asked to read a written statement she had prepared, where she talked about what she has “learned” over the past several months, including that she needs to “read” and “question everything.” Specifically, she referred again to Resolution 20-47.

“I will never vote ever again for anything – ordinance, resolution – until it is in my hand and written,” Day said. “Of course, I am referring to the legislation – or I should say lack of legislation – that produced the controversial digital sign.

“The legislation was presented to council in title only on Nov. 9, 2020. The title of this Resolution 20-47 was ‘the allocation of CARES Act funds to the city funds.’ Since we did not have the actual resolution to review, we were told less than two hours prior to council meeting on that date by the council clerk that there were three resolutions that the law director had not provided to her yet.”

According to Day, she learned in June that the legislation was never written.

“It is not my intent to continue down a path of division,” Day said. “Rather, I would prefer that these grievous errors not be repeated.

“It is important to first though admit that mistakes were made and that the process is broken. There was no miscommunication here – there was a lack of communication.”

After Day read her statement, Klein commented that “we all would have felt a lot better” if the administration had let them know “that this had been purchased with the CARES money and that it was going to be put up.”

“We’re not told things until the very last minute and then expected to vote on it, and it’s too much, too soon,” Klein said. “We need more time, and probably more things in committee meetings.”

Harsha said he would “take responsibility for some of the lack of communication” regarding the sign, but it had been presented to council “two or three times that it was going to be a possible use of CARES Act money.” Klein responded that it was one of several options presented as possibilities to council by Abbott.

“It was not set in stone,” she said.

Abbott interjected, saying that Butler was the one who mentioned the sign as a potential project to council. “Until this point, I have not spoken on the sign, at all, intentionally,” she said.

Abbott told council that she has supervisory authority over Adkins, leading to her signing off on the purchase orders as confirmation that funds were available to expend.

“I won’t do it again,” she said. “It wasn’t intentional. I would never use this position for personal gain, ever. I apologize if I’ve let anyone down.”

Abbott said that she also abstained from voting on sign decisions during her tenure as a member of the Design Review Board and was not involved in any of the discussions to that board or to council.

“I have tried to remove myself,” Abbott said. “I didn’t see the quotes on the sign. I didn’t enter into a contract, didn’t hire anyone. Literally, everything I could do to stay from away from it, I attempted to.

“Again, I made a mistake. I should have waited for Justin to get back and sign the purchase order, but I didn’t. Ultimately, when I sign off on those purchase orders, every purchase of the city over $1,000, it’s an extra step to not compromise our budget, and that’s the intent of those standard operating procedures.”

Morris disagreed, saying that Abbott did discuss the sign with the Design Review Board.

“I presented phase two,” Abbott said.

“Well, either way,” Morris said.

“No, not ‘either way,’” Abbott said. “Not the digital sign. It’s the donation I was making. It’s not ‘either way.’ Those are two separate things.”

Morris then referred to the timeline that Day mentioned, with the check for Chad Abbott Signs being issued “two days” after council’s meeting.

“It just seems like how could you make that decision in such a quick amount of time?” she asked.

Council President Tom Eichinger asked Beery to address that question. Beery said that the city operated under the federal guidelines for CARES Act expenditures.

“And the ordinance that didn’t exist was to authorize the expenditure of the money?” Eichinger asked.

“No, it was to give some comfort to the city auditor, who wanted that extra information brought to council,” Beery said. “I don’t know that everything was discussed.

“Apparently, there was a miscommunication, because resolutions and ordinances need to be in writing. I need to advise you all not to pass anything that you haven’t seen a copy of. I know that some places, they make motions to approve stuff. I think this was intended to be a resolution and not a simple motion, but that’s what it turned out to be, a simple motion.”

According to the interaction between Eichinger and Beery, the resolution was “never intended” to outline all of the specific projects being funded or for council to specifically approve them.

Based on questions from Day, neither Beery nor Butler were sure who titled Resolution 20-46. Regardless, Beery said the legislation “never existed.”

“It was nothing more than a motion of council,” he said. “After all the discussion happened, probably Alex would prefer to have that resurrected and approved, so he has it in his file.”

Butler also discussed the would-be legislation in his comments to council, saying he had originally sought approval “for auditing purposes, to cross our t’s and dot our i’s.”

Council previously voted Sept. 14 to approve a resolution authorizing the use of CARES Act funding to reimburse city departments for paid administrative leave and quarantine pay related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ahead of the November meeting, Butler said “nothing was set in stone” regarding projects to his knowledge, but he wanted legislation “for transparency purposes and for auditing purposes” showing that they informed council of “probable” uses for the funds.

“At the November council meeting, POs [purchase orders] had not been opened for a specific project or a specific vendor at that point in time,” Butler said. “It’s not definite, from an auditing perspective, because no formal request has been made to my office for a specific vendor or a specific dollar amount at that point in time.”

As pointed out by Eichinger and Beery, Butler reiterated that the would-be resolution was not intended for council to specifically authorize projects, but to give them a general idea of possible use of the money.

“I wasn’t asking for agreement, for critique, for input,” Butler said. “I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way, but that’s not what I was trying to accomplish by that legislation. The purpose of that legislation solely was to say ‘hey, it looks like the money’s going to be spent on these projects’ and for auditing purposes get your blessing.

“It was an extra measure, from my perspective, to alleviate any potential auditing problems and to mitigate the situation we find ourselves in.”

The follow-up resolution introduced by Butler Monday – Resolution 21-41, “a resolution to approve and ratify Resolution 20-47” – had the same intent, he said.

“It’s not to say that you agree with the expenses, that you agree with how it happened, that you agree with the location of certain things or vendors,” Butler said. “That’s not a conversation I’m trying to have right now.”

Klein said she thought that it had been presented to council as a resolution “to show that we were getting the money and that it was going to be put in the general fund.”

“That is not how the money flowed,” Butler said. “For expense of CARES Act funds, I did not need authorization to move money.

“For CARES Act funds, when it was received by the city, we were required to create a special fund to put it.”

Eichinger pointed out that council did approve that fund’s creation earlier in 2020, and Butler said that expenses were paid out of that fund.

“For Resolution 20-47, I was not asking for an authorization to move money from the COVID fund to other funds,” he said.

Butler also addressed comments from Morris and Day on the timing of the sign’s approval.

“The deadline we were operating from nearly the entire year was Dec. 30, 2020,” he said. “CARES Act money had to be allocated and spent by that point in time.

“On Dec. 28, 2020, I got an email that said ‘guess what? Now you have until Dec. 30, 2021 to spend this money.’ It is true to say the deadline shifted, but it’s a misapplication to say we received an abundance of extra time because at that point in time, two days before the deadline, the POs had been opened, we had been invoiced and checks had been written.”

After Butler’s comments, Day asked administration to consider funding what she called “good” projects with future COVID-19 relief funds and “reach out to our community” to see how they could be helped.

“There’s quite a few things like public health expenses, medical expenses, nursing home assistance, food programs, housing support,” she said.

Harsha said that the administration is already in talks about projects for the “next round,” but they are limited by “more restrictions.” (Ellison also later clarified that some of those examples Day cited apply to larger “cities where they already have health care as part of their system as their city government as a branch.”)

“I would like council to also be included in those conversations,” Day said. “Even though we don’t have to vote on how it’s spent, it’s never a good thing to leave us out.”

After that 43-minute long back-and-forth, the issue was revisited during the first reading of ordinances and resolutions, when Resolution 21-41 was officially introduced.

The text of the resolution includes an explanation of council’s discussion and vote on Resolution 20-47 in November, which passed unanimously, as well as the fact council passed the minutes of that meeting in December.

The text adds: “Whereas, no proposed legislation in writing for Resolution 20-47 was prepared or submitted following the adoption of RESOLUTION NO. 20-47, NOW, THEREFORE, Be it resolved by the Council of the City of Hillsboro, State of Ohio, that SECTION ONE: Council, pursuant to its prior action, does hereby ratify and approve the use of CARES ACT FUNDS received and appropriated, as noted in the approved minutes from the Nov. 9, 2020 Regular Council meeting.

Day objected to the word “approve” in the portion that says that “Council … does hereby ratify and approve the use of CARES ACT FUNDS.”

“We did not ‘approve,’” Day said. “That’s not what Resolution 20-47, by title only, was given to us in November, so I will not support this written in this manner.”

Eichinger said that “if you look on what was voted on at the November meeting, there were [all] yeas” on the motion.

“I took that straight from the minutes,” Beery added.

Beery asked Butler if he would be “comfortable with” removing the word “approve,” so the resolution would instead just read “ratify.”

“If it’s a matter of semantics, absolutely,” Butler said. “Whatever accomplishes what I’m trying to accomplish.”

Eichinger also asked Day if that would be “satisfactory.”

“Yeah,” she said. “I want it to reflect that we did not ‘approve.’”

Klein moved to remove “and approve” from the resolution.

“Can we wait until next month and have it in the correct writing?” Morris asked.

Eichinger said that council could, with Klein and Day echoing “Yes,” but Butler said that “time is of the essence” because the city’s audit is this month.

“If it’s a matter of changing it tonight or changing it next month, it would be preferable to change it tonight,” Butler said.

“What would this change about the audit?” Morris asked.

“I’d rather not find out,” Butler said.

Council member Adam Wilkin seconded Klein’s original motion to remove “and approve” from the language, which passed by a 5-2 vote, with Day and Morris voting no.

After that vote, Day then objected to council member Greg Maurer voting on the motion because he was “not present Nov. 9.” (At that time, Maurer was not yet a member of city council.)

“He’s a voting member of council,” Beery told her.

“But this resolution is regarding Resolution 20-47, which he wasn’t present for,” she said.

“It doesn’t require his presence,” Beery said. “It requires his approval.”

A subsequent motion to approve and adopt the resolution (made by Wilkin and seconded by council member Mark Middleton) also passed by a 5-2 vote, with Day and Morris again voting against it.

For more from Monday night’s meeting, click the links below.