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Public records requests are costing thousands

THORNVILLE – A deluge of public records requests is draining Thornville’s money, particularly as the village currently lacks a council clerk, said Thornville Village Council President Dale Brussee Monday night.

“Every time a public records request is given, they have to be directed to the solicitor for validity. That costs money,” he said. Brussee urged people who make the requests to familiarize themselves with Ohio’s Sunshine Laws so they know how to submit a request properly and how to create a specific request, not one that’s vague or too general.

Brussee took over some clerk of council duties following former council clerk Danielle Lovett’s resignation last year. So far, the village has been unable to replace her. Brussee said he hasn’t had training to determine a legitimate records request from one considered by law to be too general and time consuming, so he’s been forced to send requests to the village’s attorney.

“This is a legal way of bankrupting a village,” Brussee said. “I just want people to know that we’ve spent recently thousands of dollars on the whole set up of public records requests because we as a village are trying to do it the right way, and doing it the right way costs money.” He urged people to “help the village out” by not submitting public records requests that are vague or too broad. “It doesn’t do the village any good to have to use our solicitor to comment on that, but that’s what we’re doing,” Brussee said. He said the village just completed a records request that was requested Oct. 21, 2016, which involved the solicitor and a private attorney. “That cost the village a lot of money,” Brussee said. “We got it done, but we need to be careful what we’re requesting. That’s my opinion as a resident of Thornville; I made this report as a councilman of Thornville and the two are non-related. I’m talking as a private citizen tired of seeing the dollars of Thornville float away. People want these monies to do other projects in the village. We can’t do that if we’re paying our solicitor all the time.”

Resident Beth Dannaher, council member Olivia Newbold’s mother, asked if a former village employee made a January records request.

“Yes,” Brussee said, adding that it was an email request directed toward Newbold. He said the village solicitor said it was permissible for her to provide that email, although an attorney representing Newbold challenged that decision. “That conversation between her and our solicitor resulted in the turning over of one email,” Brussee said.

“Since you’ve identified Olivia, could you identify the person who made that request,” Dannaher said.

“It was me,” said former council clerk Danielle Lovett.

Newbold said the email was between her, resident Angie Hedges (Brussee’s sister-in-law) and other members of council.

Brussee said the village has paid thousands to process many public records, not just the email request. He said the solicitor needed to ensure the email in question didn’t contain any village business before it was released. “And that was it,” he said. “Public records requests can be on private servers, emails, or anything where you’re representing yourself as a village council person. So, we’re all subject on our own private computers that if we converse with our mayor or our village administrator we’re all subject to a public records request as to our conversations. The solicitor is out of bounds for confidentiality, we can’t do that, but as far as members of the village, it’s up for grabs.”

“Have you in your new capacity looked back through the last year (of public records,” Dannaher said.

“It’s not my new capacity,” Brussee said. “I’m being a sub, and I’m wanting really bad to give it up.” He said Administrator Beth Patrick invited all council members to look at all previous village bills. “And, I did,” Brussee said. He said the village receives monthly updates from the solicitor who details how much time was devoted to whom.

“Is it noted which fees come from elected officials versus the public,” Dannaher asked.

“I’m going to remind you that I really didn’t want this job (council clerk),” Brussee said. “I know the amount of money because we were given the privilege to look at all the past bills on that.”

Council member Mary Renner said anyone could make a public records request. “Just because you’re an employee of the village does not put you in a position where you can no longer make public records requests,” she said. “Public records requests can be made by anyone in the village or outside of the village.”

“Do you think it’s unusual that the council clerk made records request,” Dannaher said.

“I submitted that request after I resigned, so you can quit saying a village employee submitted that,” Lovett said. But, she is still village zoning secretary, “which has two completely different functions,” Lovett said.

Resident Willis McNabb said hiring a new council clerk would reduce expenses to the solicitor. He said he thought Brussee made the comment about bankrupting the village to intimidate people. “It’s not their fault that nobody is sitting in that chair,” he said. McNabb thought expenses would return to normal once a new clerk is hired.

Brussee and McNabb continued to debate until Brussee said, “Don’t be an ass, Willis.” Later, Brussee apologized for calling McNabb an ass, explaining the two have a history of spirited debate and he was tired of being belittled during the meeting.

Renner apologized to former council clerks Lovett and Sharon Brussee, saying he should have backed them up more when they were dealing with a huge volume of public records requests.

Brussee said Tuesday he thought Renner’s apology was sincere. “It was a moving moment,” he said. “Those two women took it before I did.”

“In 2016, we’ve seen a significant jump in the number of requests over previous years. We’ve had two council clerks resign last year, both over records requests disputes,” Renner said in an email to The Beacon.

Renner continued, “…I’ve stated this multiple times, the village is obligated to keep records in accordance with a written policy. We’re not required to create records that don’t exist. We aren’t required to answer broad and overly general requests. Most of the requests we’ve received are either not records, too broad, and have at times come with threat of legal action. These are all handed over to the solicitor so he can weigh in on the situation. We’re required to hand records over in a timely manner, this doesn’t mean 10 minutes after we get a request. It takes time in cases.

“Brussee is right, these requests have been costing the village thousands. It also costs us morale and unity. The fact is we don’t currently have a council clerk is because frankly people are being disrespectful and demeaning…

“The comments at the meeting indicate that the same people plan to drag this out another year, claim conspiracies, claim vendettas, claim hazing, make bold accusations and play political theater… There are real issues council needs to deal with in 2017… Renner said.

In other village news:

• Streets Maintenance Supervisor Jay Jennie resigned to take a position elsewhere. “He represents the kind of employee we have, respectful, knowledgeable, willing to pitch in,” Renner said. “He’s served the village for 18 years. His presence will be missed.” The Village will have a ceremony thanking Jennie for his service Jan. 30 at 7:30 p.m. at the Village Office. The public is welcome.

“The knowledge he’s taking with him will be hard to replace,” Brussee said. “He took pride in the village. He will be missed.”

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