Pictured are (front, l-r) Hillsboro city council members Claudia Klein, Ann Morris and Wendy Culbreath. Also pictured are council president pro tempore Justin Harsha and clerk Heather Collins. (HCP Photos/Caitlin Forsha)
Pictured are (front, l-r) Hillsboro city council members Claudia Klein, Ann Morris and Wendy Culbreath. Also pictured are council president pro tempore Justin Harsha and clerk Heather Collins. (HCP Photos/Caitlin Forsha)
Hillsboro city council members voted to approve a $3 increase to city water fees and to accept a donation of a tract of land valued at $160,000 during their Monday, April 8 meeting, and they also heard about a potential “agreement” between the city and Parker House owner Jack Hope on the uptown property. However, approximately 25 percent of the meeting was devoted to complaints and allegations regarding Hillsboro auditor Gary Lewis, issued by several council members and Hillsboro mayor Drew Hastings.

Monday night’s meeting began with council member Wendy Culbreath consulting with council president pro tempore Justin Harsha on whether he had met with Lewis “and why he [Lewis] has not given us the reports we’ve asked for.”

As previously reported, Culbreath, Claudia Klein and Ann Morris discussed a lack of additional reports from Lewis during their March meeting. Harsha and Morris both said during last month’s meeting that they would be contacting Lewis again.

Harsha said that council had received “a very big report” from the auditor this month. However, the three councilwomen – and Hastings – were apparently not satisfied.

“I talked to Gary, and specifically, he needs to know exactly what you’re looking for, and I would be happy to work with both you and Gary to make sure you get exactly what you want,” Harsha told the council members. “He has given us a very big report, and we need to narrow that down.

“I will help you in any way I can.”

“I’m just at a loss that this is the first he’s even responded,” Culbreath said, alluding to a resolution passed by council seeking extra reports from the city treasurer (not the city auditor).

As previously reported, during their December 2018 meeting, council voted 4-3 to approve a resolution stipulating that each month the city treasurer, Heather Young, will be required to report "the condition of the finances of the City of Hillsboro; the amount received by the City Treasurer; the sources of such receipts; the disbursements made by the City Treasurer; and on what account, during the year to date. Such account shall exhibit the balance due on each fund which has come into the Treasurer’s hands during the year to date.” The reports are currently required to be done quarterly instead of monthly, although council said in December they do not receive quarterly reports.

Harsha repeated Monday that “we have extra reports here,” which prompted the mayor to lash out at Harsha.

“With all due respect, Justin, this is a crock,” Hastings told Harsha. “He has been vacant for months. I think everybody here knows we’re not getting anything. We have no idea in this city what the finances of the city are. This is an absolute disgrace, for you to say that you’re working with Gary to facilitate somehow…”

“No, I did not say that I’m working,” Harsha interrupted. “I said I would work. I said I’d talk to him. He has asked me. He has given the reports he thought that everybody wanted. I am trying to facilitate between council and the auditor.”

“Well, it just seems to me – and I’m not holding you responsible by any means – but it seems like we are beyond trying to facilitate with him,” Hastings said. “Really, at this point, it should just go to the state.”

Klein told Harsha that council needs “to know what amounts are left in each fund at the end of each month.”

When Klein made a similar request in October 2017, Hastings also, similarly, said that the city didn’t “get any information” from Lewis. At that time, Klein said they wanted Lewis to include “each project, the amount of money that’s in there, what’s been expended and what is left,” in his reports. Then-council president Lee Koogler told Klein in October 2017 that city administrators are “the ones actually going forward and doing the projects. They have to send purchase requisitions over to the auditor’s office. It takes some sort of cooperation from both to get the information that you’re requesting.”

When Hastings responded that his office doesn’t “have any information like that,” Lewis at that time said “the administration has complete access” to all such information. Safety and service director Mel McKenzie said that he would cooperate with Lewis to provide such information to council during that meeting.

One year later, Lewis stopped attending council meetings, as Koogler announced during the November 2018 meeting that Lewis would be “no longer attending council meetings unless he receives three business days’ notice prior to a council meeting.” According to the Ohio Revised Code and city ordinances, there is no requirement for Lewis (or other administrators) to attend the meeting unless “specifically requested” by council.

“Has anybody requested the presence of Gary?” Harsha asked Monday. “I know he said that if anybody wanted him to come here, to give him three days’ notice.”

“Excuse me, but we have requested reports from Gary for the past two years, Ann and I have,” Klein said.

“I’m not asking about the reports,” Harsha said. “I’m asking if he could be here to respond.”

“When he was here, he responded. He said I never asked him, and I have,” Morris said.

“I understand,” Harsha said. “I’m just asking – how about requesting his presence at the next meeting? I will do whatever I can between here and the next meeting.”

“According to the ORC, if council requests his presence at a meeting, he is required to be here,” Klein said.

“But it hasn’t been requested at this point,” Harsha said.

“I request that he be here at the next meeting,” Klein said.

“I will make that request,” Harsha said.

Hastings said “it’s pretty much been tradition that our auditor, and our mayor, and president of council are always at meetings, and have been for decades. I think his answer to us is by not being here.”

Klein said that during the city’s audit, state auditors “recommended that [Lewis] prepare and provide to council the reports that we are asking for, that what he is preparing for council is not enough.” Culbreath then read a portion of the letter, saying that the state recommended that council receive “reports with detailed transactions” instead of only the year-to-date fund and bank reports that they customarily receive.

“It was forwarded to us on Dec. 13, 2018, and then we did do a resolution,” Culbreath said, referencing the resolution for the treasurer’s reports. “If he has trouble understanding what it is we want, then he could have called any one of us or emailed us.

“It just seems to me like it’s a dereliction of duty.”

(Regarding Culbreath’s allegation: Under the Ohio Revised Code, dereliction of duty is a second-degree misdemeanor and would occur if a “public servant shall recklessly fail to perform a duty expressly imposed by law with respect to the public servant's office, or recklessly do any act expressly forbidden by law with respect to the public servant's office.”

Lewis’ duties, per the ORC, are to “keep an accurate account of all taxes and assessments, and of all money due to, all receipts and disbursements by, and of all assets and liabilities of the municipal corporation, and of all appropriations made by the legislative authority. The auditor shall, at the end of each fiscal year, and more often if required by the legislative authority, audit the accounts of the several departments and officers and shall audit all other accounts in which the municipal corporation is interested. The auditor may prescribe the form of reports to be rendered to his department, and the method of keeping accounts by all other departments, and he shall require daily reports, showing all money received and the disposition thereof, to be made to him by each department. The auditor shall, upon the death, resignation, removal, or expiration of the term of any officer, audit the accounts of the officer, and, if the officer is found indebted to the municipal corporation, the auditor shall immediately give notice thereof to the legislative authority and the village solicitor or city director of law, and the latter shall forthwith proceed to collect the indebtedness.”)

“We will get to the bottom of this, this month,” Harsha said. “I will request his presence at the next council meeting.”

“It’s been over two years we’ve requested this, and we’ve either been stonewalled or told ‘I’m not doing it,’” Klein said.

“Dereliction of duty,” Culbreath repeated. “That’s what it is.”

“He told me before he would not do it,” Morris said. “He just needs to do it.”

Lewis declined to comment to The Highland County Press Monday night.

• • •

During his report, Hastings reported that “the city and the Jack Hope family, I believe, should have an agreement regarding the Parker House property this week. I think there will be a solution, I hope, that both the Hope family and the city find acceptable.”

The sidewalk in front of the property on West Main Street is currently closed. City administrators and Hope have been at odds over the building’s condition for many years, including the city filing a motion in 2010 in Highland County Common Pleas Court to order Hope to submit to inspections of the property and Hope filing several lawsuits against the city.

In 2018, Hastings reported that he had “proposed that Jack take advantage of the city’s blight program,” but that Hope “did not want to do anything” at that point.

Jack Hope told The Highland County Press on Monday, April 8 that it is “not exactly true” that he has any pending agreement with the city of Hillsboro regarding the Parker House property on West Main Street.

“I don’t think we have any real agreement,” Hope said. “I put out a document – a handwritten thing. Some council members wanted me to give up, and I didn’t want to fight them. I want to preserve the Parker House for the city. I don’t want to fight (the city); they’ve never offered anything. The city has not contacted me.”

• • •

Council voted 6-1 to adopt an ordinance to amend Section 51.36 of the City Code to provide for modification of the minimum usage charge for water usage. The $3 increase raises the minimum usage charge to $15.08 for the first 133 cubic feet — the second increase in a year, as the base charge was $9.08 at this time last year.

The fee was last increased less than a year ago, in May 2018.

The ordinance will help fund upgrades to the “aging infrastructure” of the water treatment systems, as discussed by council member and utilities committee chair Brandon Leeth at the February council meeting.

Culbreath was the lone council member to vote against the ordinance.

• • •

Council voted 7-0 to suspend the three-reading rule and to adopt a resolution accepting a 25-acre parcel of land donated to the city by Rita Blankenship and Bill and Janet Butler.

According to the resolution, the property is “generally located at the termini of Greystone and Elizabeth Drives in the City of Hillsboro” and is valued at $160,000.

“This land will help the city, specifically the Public Works Department and a lot of their operations,” Hastings said during his report. “We are most appreciative to Mrs. Blankenship and the Butlers for this land.”

There was no discussion of the resolution by council prior to the vote.

• • •

McKenzie reported that the Ohio Department of Transportation will be completing a paving project during the daytime hours on Route 50 and to expect delays.

The safety and service director asked council to place a request from several citizens, who had contacted him, into committee. McKenzie said “they wanted to discuss the deposit that renters have to make before receiving city water and sewer. They questioned if the deposit was enough.”

Council member Mary Stanforth asked if the “citizens” in question were “owners of these rental places.” “Of course,” McKenzie said.

Harsha placed the matter in the utilities committee.

McKenzie also thanked members of the Hillsboro student council, who contacted him with ideas for improvements at Harmony Lake and Liberty Park. He said the students “are interested in planting a possible sunflower field and wildflower field” at the lake as well as making improvements to the dog park at Liberty Park, such as adding “dog agility structures” and planting trees.

“I thank the students very much that are interested in serving and helping their community,” McKenzie said. “It’s a big feat for that age to think outside of their own world.”

• • •

During the committee reports:

• Leeth reported that the utilities committee heard a presentation from former interim safety and service director Gary Silcott of Stantec regarding “the stormwater fee structure and how to fund the utility.” The committee has been working on a plan to repair and/or replace stormwater utilities within the city for several months.

“The stormwater utility will be its own separate department, so we discussed how it will be funded,” Leeth said. “We also wanted to note that by being its own department, it will be a benefit funding-wise when it comes to obtaining grant money. Shawn Adkins [city public works administrator] will be getting back with administration with some numbers on what it should take to start the new department.”

Another item on the agenda for their committee meeting was “a big EPA issue with the wastewater treatment plant being at capacity.”

“There’s quite a bit of stormwater that needs to be routed out of the sanitary system and into its proper place,” Leeth said. “We know several locations that need to be focused on. We need to start from the lowest point to the highest point when it comes to preparing stormwater system itself. That will be the plan of action we will be taking, as this project will be ongoing for several years.”

The committee will be hearing from city administrators on the “fee structure” and “numbers on what the average homeowner should pay, as well as what the large businesses and industries should pay.”

“We’d like it to be as affordable as we can, while also ensuring we fund it correctly, since this will be a department that will need continuous improvement funding,” Leeth said.

• Harsha reported that the finance committee met to discuss salaries of elected officials, which was tabled. The committee is also making changes to the compensation of non-union city employees and will meet again to review the changes. The committee also reviewed changes to building department and permit fees made by McKenzie, which now “closely resemble the city of Wilmington.”

• Stanforth said that the civil service and employee relations committee attempted to hold a joint meeting with the finance committee but did not have a quorum.

• Council member Adam Wilkin told council that the street and safety committee held a meeting to begin discussing McKenzie’s request to “update the city code of ordinances.” Wilkin said the committee determined that the “best way to do this is to start at the beginning and slowly make our way through.”

Harsha asked McKenzie if there are “any sections of the code that you’d really like to see focused on first, rather than starting at the beginning.” McKenzie said that he had “several items” marked that he could give to Wilkin.

• • •

Hastings reported that the planning commission granted a conditional use permit for 652 South High Street and encouraged citizens to complete the second “Imagine Hillsboro” survey on the city’s website, hillsboroohio.net.

• • •

In other action:

• Council voted 7-0 to suspend the three-reading rule and to adopt an ordinance to grant a temporary prescriptive easement to Carl F. Gamble to the area of encroachment along the alleyway on the east side of Lot 5 in the City of Hillsboro in order to settle a claim.

Harsha explained that “a house was found, after a survey, to be overhanging a little bit in an alleyway.” City law director Fred Beery said that Gamble inherited the property after the death of his sister and had the survey completed, which revealed the encroachment.

According to the language of the ordinance and Beery’s explanation, “the city grants … a temporary prescriptive easement of such encroachment, including any overhang from the eaves of the structure, to run with the land, unless and until the structure encroaching on the City alleyway right of way shall have been removed. Upon the removal of said structure, this easement shall be terminated and extinguished and the rights of the City to the platted right of way shall be fully restored.”

• Council also voted 7-0 to approve and adopt a resolution to transfer $100,000 from the General Fund line item Contingency to General Fund item Blighted Property.

(Editor’s note: Rory Ryan and Brandy Chandler contributed to this article.)