The first meeting of 2022 began to look a lot like the last meetings of the Colerain Township Trustees in 2017, (Video of August 2017 provided by WXIX-TV, 19 News.) with a denial of public input and threats against residents as the board passed restrictive public meeting rules.
It wasn't any way on par with 2017, but the issue was the same. The trustees held a special meeting, this time called an Organizational Meeting, wherein they passed meeting rules without public participation.
The more things change; the more they remain the same.
Trustee Matthew Wahlert threatened to throw the director of Child Advocacy for Rights & Equity, Inc. (C.A.R.E.) out of the meeting after their request to permit public comments was denied. The director of C.A.R.E. said she wasn't phased by the threats,
The township has a history of demeaning and harassing residents who bring forth uncomfortable issues, but I'm not really intimidated by being thrown out of a meeting. All we wanted to do was to put it on the record that they were hearing issues at an "organizational" meeting in order to prevent public input. Every time they raised a motion that was a topic for a regular session, I objected. They didn't like it.
C.A.R.E., acting in its official capacity as a nonprofit located in the township, objected each time the trustees brought an issue forward that was not ministerial in nature during the meeting. For example, the board voted to adopt rules for conduct at trustee meetings. According to C.A.R.E., the new rules (at page 5) :
- Under ORC 505.01, titles the head of the board as "chairperson" not "president." The title denotes very different powers and authorities under the Revised Code.
- Meetings are defined in the rules as, "a gathering of a majority of the Board of Trustees for the purpose of discussing or deliberating public business". This definition conflicts with the Ohio Revised Code. The ORC does not require that the gathering be one "for the purpose of" anything. It becomes a meeting under the Ohio Open Meetings Act whenever 2 or more trustees deliberate on a township matter. (The township has lost multiple suits for violating the Open Meetings Act that is very costly to taxpayers.)
- Prohibit a trustee from engaging with a resident in any manner or extending a speaker's time while they are making public comments unless there is a vote of a majority of the trustees to permit so.
- Requires that only the township administrator can approve presentations before the board. An abridgment of the general powers of each trustee.
- That "disruptive" behavior can result in ceasing comments or removal of a person from the meeting, but it does not define "disruptive".
C.A.R.E. said that they did not consider entering objections "on the record" and out of turn as "disruptive" behavior. There were a handful of other issues that C.A.R.E. raised objections to: funding decisions, routine purchases, and staff hirings - all of which are normally done during routine board meetings that permit public input. Wahlert seemed to calm down when C.A.R.E. invited him to follow through with his threats and he took an about-face and instead of walking down the path of his predecessors, he thanked C.A.R.E. for their objections, de-escalating the situation.
It was a smart move.
The township could've walked the taxpayers of Colerain Township right dab into the middle of yet another lawsuit. Colerain has an inordinate number of lawsuits. They don't fair well. According to C.A.R.E., "The township's conduct is very adversarial and they are prone to retaliate against residents who stand up to them - at great costs to the township." Colerain has a history of threatening residents, insulting them during meetings, even arresting residents. One tactic used to retaliate against residents is to refer to them as " litigious" to justify ignoring and excluding residents.
It doesn't work.
In other business, trustees refused to permit the township administrator to write checks for up to $10K without board authorization. The trustees kept the limit of $2,500 on the administrator, much to his chagrin. Geoff Milz, the administrator, protested, "If you don't pass this motion, I will not be able to conduct any business until the next meeting."
That wasn't true.
However, the Law Director remained mute and did not inform the trustees - his client - that Milz's information was false. Trustee Unger remained steadfast and devised a motion to continue the $2,500 check-writing limit which passed unanimously.
On a more favorable note, Cathy Ulrich was seated as the newly elected trustee after a very contentious campaign where it was learned that she, along with Trustee Dan Unger, each accepted an $8K campaign donation from the area's biggest corporation, Rumpke, when the company has significant business before the board in the coming year. She also had been rebuked by some residents for an orchestrated denial of the Republican endorsement expected to be given to incumbent, "Raj" Rajagopal.
It was a bitter campaign.
However, the Rotunda outside the trustees' chamber had a make-shift "Welcome" table filled with sweet treats and positive messages wishing her well from some of her biggest critics during the campaign.
The next Regular Meeting of the Colerain Trustees is scheduled for January 11th, at 7 PM.