By Charles Prince
BUCKEYE LAKE – Monday evening’s Village Council meeting was more notable for what didn’t happen than what actually transpired.
Two weeks ago, council member Arletta Ruton claimed to have a legal opinion that council’s two stealth resolutions, adopted September 10, to reduce the mayor’s authority didn’t violate the village’s charter. Village Solicitor Dan Hayes wrote council members on September 24, explicitly stating, “Both Resolutions are in direct conflict with the Charter of the Village of Buckeye Lake.” This writer opined that Ruton’s “attorney” was likely “imaginary” and that appears to be the case.
Two weeks ago, four council members – Council President Kitty Zwissler, Bob Masone MD, Tom Wolfe and Ruton – flayed around about overriding Mayor Peggy Wells’ veto of both resolutions. They had not consulted the Charter which clearly gives them 30 days to override her vetoes. Monday evening was the last regular meeting that met the Charter timeline, but an override wasn’t even mentioned. Obviously, the proponents knew they didn’t have the six out of seven votes required to override the vetoes.
A nearly one-hour long Finance Committee meeting preceded the regular council meeting. Masone was the only council member not present for the Finance meeting. Fiscal Officer Rochelle Menningen presented an extensive financial worksheet to review budget proposals for 2019. It included appropriations and expenditures for 2015, 2017, 2017 and 2018 to date. “This is just a snapshot to start working on the 2019 budget,” she explained. Menningen said council members should look hard at the police fund (it’s been supplemented out of the general fund for years) and the street fund (revenue is down due to lower gasoline tax revenue).
Her information packet also included the first pages from the village’s two Park National Bank accounts. The general fund account showed a balance of $1,805,383.40 as of Oct. 7; the general checking account had a balance of $254,628.80. “It sounds like the money is there overall,” council member John Geiger commented. “Is there anything we have to address?” Menningen told him that a 2017 advance from the general fund for the stormwater program needs to be repaid; the Ohio Police and Fire Pension Fund wants about $7,000 because the Board discovered last year that the Village was still paying into PERS for an officer that moved from part-time to full-time status; and the village still must pay OPEC-HC about $9,000 for 2017 run-out claims. The Police and Fire Pension payment is complicated because the now-former police officer cleaned out his OPERS accounts, potentially forcing the village to pay both Police & Fire and OPERS. Menningen told council members that they must approve appropriation amendments legislatively before these issues can be cleared up.
Menningen estimates the police fund will receive about $105,000 in revenue next year. Expenses for the new chief, two full-time officers and three part-time officers are estimated at $269,000. That doesn’t include the cost of a new cruiser to provide more reliable transportation for officers.
Wolfe commented that legal expenses took a lot out of the police fund this year. Ruton asked where the funds for Hanzey’s trial before council came from. Menningen said they were paid out of several funds. Ruton then claimed the trial cost the village about $50,000.
“We’re here to talk about 2019,” Menningen said. “We’re trying to understand where we are in ’18,” Wolfe responded.
Menningen asked that council give her a specific list of the questions they want answered. Wolfe wants to know how much has been spent on legal expenses this year and where did it come from. Menningen said she had already answered that question from Wolfe last month and suggested he look at her September 20 email to him. He said he didn’t have access to it. Menningen said the three funds used were Legal & Advertising; Professional & Technical Services; and Contracted Services..
Wolfe recessed the meeting so Mennigen could give him the specific expenses. She returned a few minutes later with a copy of her email to Wolfe that listed $27,000 in legal expenses for Hanzey’s trial.
“We’re hope to reduce our legal expenses,” Wolfe concluded and the meeting was adjourned.
During the regular meeting, council members unanimously approved the September 24 meeting minutes after Council Clerk Valerie Hans noted that she had corrected some errors she had made. Menningen’s financial reports were accepted by a narrow 4-3 vote as Ruton, Wolfe and Zwissler continued their now months-long negative votes. There was no discussion about the reports or explanations for the “no” votes.
During committee reports, Wolfe said he came into the village office to look at the Speedway bill after a village credit card purchase of fuel for a medic was rejected. He claimed in a written “Finance Chair’s Observations and Comments” that was included in the public documents for the meeting that, “Speedway Fuel bill for the emergency squad was not paid in a timely manner which resulted in the credit card being rejected when the squad personnel stopped to refuel after returning from a run.” Ruton had raised the issue two weeks earlier on September 24.
Menningen wrote an email to council members two days later that included an update about the Speedway credit card. She reported that the account was set up with former fiscal officer Mary Jennings as “the owner,” which made it difficult to get information from Speedway. She said she had finally been able to speak with an account manager on September 26 and provided her a confirmation number from the village’s last payment. After she checked with a supervisor, she told Menningen that the account had been “inadvertently turned off when the payment was processed.” That problem has been corrected, Menningen was told. Menningen asked to set up automatic payments. Her letter also noted that village emergency vehicles also have Englefield Oil cards and that account is current.
She also wrote, “It is sadly incomprehensible to me that the Newark Advocate was asked to attend our Council meeting this past Monday, September 24th, due to the fact that the Village’s Clerk Treasurer had endangered village citizens by not paying the fuel bill.”
That stunt backfired when questions about the “drinking” video prompted Zwissler to pull out what she said was the exact same bottle and invite resident Marianne Perine to take a sip. The Advocate reporter took a photo of the bottle and compared it to the bottle shown in the video. They didn’t match, giving the story new legs and leading to NBC4’s “Booze Gate” story.
Going back to Wolfe’s report Monday evening, he differed to Ruton who said she had, “Major concerns about the financial stability of the village.” She then proceeded to give her version of an October 3 meeting with two representatives of the State Auditor’s Office of Local Government Services. Menningen’s September 26 email to council members said she had been contacted by that Office on September 26. She said she was told that a village council member had contacted the State Auditor’s Office claiming the Clerk/Treasurer has “misappropriated money and had run the Fund balances to zero with no explanation.” She added that she welcomed the visit but called the allegations “slanderous,” adding anyone is welcome to call for an audit or reports but not make false statements.
A summary of that Local Government Services meeting sent to Zwissler, Ruton and Menningen traced the problem back to how the previous fiscal officer, Mary Jennings, entered the 2018 appropriations into the village’s accounting system. While “financial distress” was briefly discussed, the summary stated, “Based upon our discussion, it appears that the Village has adequate cash and fund balances, basically the fiscal officer will work to bring items up to date in the UAN (accounting) system.” The summary’s last sentence succinctly summed up the village’s financial problems. “Based upon discussions during the meeting and afterward with the Fiscal Officer, based upon the current level at which appropriations have been approved by Council, it is highly likely that supplemental/amended appropriations will need to be approved by Council in order for the Village to be in compliance with Ohio Budgetary law.”
Wolfe then read Wells’ September 27 memo to council members. She wrote, “Clerk/Treasurer Rochelle Menningen is overburdened with an immense amount of work at this time and is unable to do her job due to all the interruptions and requests from council members. Therefore, access to Rochelle will be restricted until further notice.” Wells also restricted council members to the front counter unless invited into the administrative area. “I don’t know why we are restricted,” Wolfe concluded. Ruton added, “We need to have access to financial information.”
This was Wells’ first council meeting without a written report. She acknowledged that the village is behind on paying some bills. “The Finance chair should look in the mirror; we need appropriations,” she explained. Her comment set off a storm of protest from Ruton, Masone and Wolfe plus gavel banging from Zwissler. “You have to appropriate the money to pay the bills,” Wells tried to continue. “The only emergency is council not appropriating money.”
During public comments, resident Cindy Stewart, who is the mayor’s assistant in the City of Whitehall, said all Whitehall offices are locked. “We have to have our people make appointments,” she explained. “Our (Buckeye Lake) new employees are trying to make sense of what they inherited.”
Fire Chief Clifford L. Mason said, “The fire department has never been in jeopardy in getting a vehicle on the road or being prepared to take a run.”
Resident Charlotte Basnet said she was “sick of” the arguments. “It’s ridiculous,” she added. “Sit down and plan. Get something done.”
Former council Finance Committee Chair Barry Herron added, “We have lots of money and we have to appropriate.”
Water Supervisor Toby Miller, who also handles most public works projects, told council members that the RFQ’s for an engineering consultant for he now combined bridge replacement and final phase of curbs and sidewalks along Ohio 79 projects were due the next day. Miller said Ruton’s Public Service Committee must made a recommendation on the consultant to Council at their October 22 meeting to keep the process on its tight timeline.
As the meeting wrapped up, Ruton said its time to put together the Charter Review Commission. Actually, it was supposed to be done last January. Council appoints five members who must be registered voters and village residents. “We’re already discussing among ourselves some people,” Zwissler added. Letters of interest are due by Wednesday, October 31. The Commission is going to have work extremely quickly to meet the requirements outlined in the Charter. “The Commission shall study and review the provisions of this Charter and the operations of the Village and shall report its recommendations, if any, for changes or revisions in this Charter to the Council no later than the first day of December of the year of their appointment.” Council’s first meeting after the letter of interest deadline is Monday, Nov. 12 If the Commission is appointed that night, they would have just 18 days to study, review and recommend changes by December 1. That’s seems to be an impossible task.
Council’s next regular meeting is set for 7 p.m. on Monday, October 22, at the village offices.