July 31, 2014

Elyria
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Water rate discussion may have violated open-meeting law

LORAIN — Ohio open meeting laws may have been violated when Mayor Chase Ritenauer on Monday discussed rescinding a sewer and water rate increase in executive session with City Council members.

The 70 percentage point increase for customers in Amherst, Elyria and Sheffield townships, approved on May 6, angered township residents and triggered a feud with Lorain County Commissioner Tom Williams.

The increase was to help pay for upgrades mandated by the federal Clean Water Act.

In a compromise, Council members replaced the hike with a $10.94 monthly maintenance and operations fee beginning in January that increases 5 percent annually through the end of 2017.

Executive sessions — closed-door meetings involving elected officials — can only be to discuss land acquisitions or sales, pending or potential litigation, personnel matters and union negotiations.

“Pending and or imminent court action” was the reason given by Council members for entering executive session, but Ritenauer could be heard by The Chronicle-Telegram through a closed door discussing rescinding the increase and implementing the fee.

“It didn’t have to do with pending litigation,” said Tim Smith, an attorney, retired Kent State University journalism professor and Sunshine Law expert. “Rate hikes are not something you can discuss in private.”

Ritenauer on Tuesday said Amherst Township trustees had written in a memo that litigation was a “last resort” if the dispute couldn’t be resolved, but Smith said that was too vague. Smith said a lawsuit would’ve had to have been filed or on the verge of being filed for the executive session to have been legal.

“The idea that, well, if we don’t do what they want, somebody might sue us, well, that’s always the case,” Smith said. “If that worked, that would be a wide open exception that would have no bounds to it.”

Smith said the vote to rescind could be challenged on the grounds that it was done after an illegal session, but Williams, who said he heard what was said in the session from Councilman Dennis Flores, D-2nd Ward, said he doesn’t plan to challenge it.

However, Williams said the discussion damages the credibility of Council members and Ritenauer with the public and was unethical.

“You’re basically hiding information from the residents,” Williams said. “It’s something I’ve been working on to change in the county as well. I’ve had to walk out of (county commission) meetings because things were being discussed (illegally).”

Ritenauer said executive-session confidentiality rules forbid him from discussing specifics of what was said in executive sessions, but no laws were broken during the approximately 1-hour, 45-minute discussion.

“Imminent litigation was discussed. The rates and the fees and all that were discussed on the floor of council (chambers)” he said.

Ritenauer said Law Director Pat Riley, who took part in the session, ensures discussions don’t violate Sunshine Laws.

Flores and Riley wouldn’t comment Tuesday, citing confidentiality rules.

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.

Mayor Chase Ritenauer’s explanation for rescinding the increase and implementing the fee: