LAGRANGE — For the first time in months, Pittsfield Township Trustee Mark McConnell was more than a spectator at the Rural Lorain County Water Authority board meeting Wednesday.
McConnell, who was ousted from the board in May, was ordered restored to his previous post earlier this month by Lorain County Common Pleas Judge James Burge, who determined that the bylaws allowing board members to remove one of their own aren’t legal. Burge’s order is temporary and he plans to hold a hearing in November to determine if McConnell can keep his place on the board permanently.
“I appreciate Judge Burge putting me back on so I can serve my constituents and, hopefully, the other customers of Rural Water,” McConnell said after the meeting. “There’s a lot of work to do and I want to be part of it.”
But McConnell’s return did little to end the squabbling that has engulfed the board for months.
LaGrange Township Trustee Gary Burnett said after the meeting that he plans to ask the Ohio Ethics Commission to determine whether fellow Rural Water board member, Huntington Township Trustee Mary Beth Derikito, broke ethics laws when she released a secret legal opinion in September to The Chronicle-Telegram.
The opinion, prepared by board attorney Dennis O’Toole, said that the board broke its own bylaws when it voted 17-9 by secret ballot to remove McConnell on May 15 over allegations he had disparaged another board member. McConnell has denied wrongdoing.
O’Toole wrote in his opinion, which the majority of the board wanted to shield from public view, that although the vote wasn’t illegal, it was improper. He also wrote that there was ultimately no harm from the mistake because on May 22 the board revoted and McConnell was removed by a roll call vote of 13-11.
Burnett asked O’Toole during the meeting whether Derikito had committed a crime by releasing the opinion in response to a public records request to Huntington Township. O’Toole said although he didn’t think Derikito could be held criminally or civilly liable, she may have committed an ethical violation.
After the meeting, Burnett said given the ongoing legal fight over McConnell’s future with the board, he thinks everything having to do with the dispute should be kept confidential and Derikito shouldn’t have released O’Toole’s opinion.
“My opinion is everything should be kept in-house,” he said.
Derikito said she would welcome an ethics probe not only of her actions, but those of the entire board. She said she complied with the public records request only after consulting with Assistant County Prosecutor Gerald Innes, who advised her she had to turn over the document.
Burnett wasn’t the only one to bring up the issue of ethics Wednesday. Several board members who have backed McConnell accused board President Stanley Wares, who supported ousting McConnell, of setting a trap for them at a September meeting.
Wares had suggested several members, who voted as township trustees to sue the waster district, had a conflict of interest when they voted against paying to defend him and General Manager Tim Mahoney in the lawsuit. Wares said he took being named in the lawsuit personally because it suggested he was personally liable in the case.
Rochester Township Trustee Amy Szmania said that if there was a problem with her and other townships trustees voting on the issue, O’Toole should have said something.
O’Toole said he hadn’t really given it much thought at the meeting and didn’t know how individual board members were going to vote. But he said it was a moot point because Innes has since said Wares and Mahoney were only sued in their professional capacities.
He also said that in the future township trustees who voted to sue Rural Water shouldn’t vote if there’s a conflict and should recuse themselves from executive sessions where legal strategy is being discussed.
Penfield Township Trustee Rick Conrad said the ongoing legal fight is getting expensive. The board’s legal fees so far this year total more than $104,000, although not all of that deals with the feud over McConnell’s place on the board.