LAGRANGE — Three months ago, Pittsfield Township Trustee Mark McConnell was waging a legal battle to rejoin the Rural Lorain County Water Authority board that had ousted him in May. On Wednesday, he was narrowly voted the organization’s vice president.
McConnell, who Lorain County Common Pleas Judge James Burge twice ordered restored to the board last year, narrowly beat out Amherst Township Trustee Dennis Abraham by a vote of 12 to 10 with two members not casting ballots.
Abraham, who served as vice president last year, had been among those who had pushed for McConnell to be removed from the board over allegations McConnell had disparaged a fellow board member and lobbied other township trustees to replace their representatives on the Rural Water board.
McConnell was removed during the May 15 meeting by a secret ballot, but after questions were raised about the legality of that vote, the board met again on May 22 and voted in public to remove him a second time.
After Wednesday’s meeting, McConnell said he was surprised by the changing fortunes that had elevated him from pariah to a leadership role. He also said he was relieved that the board voted not to appeal Burge’s decision returning him to Rural Water.
“I’m pleased that they voted not to appeal the lawsuit,” he said. “I think that would be counterproductive.”
The votes came after a reshuffling of the board that saw several members, including McConnell critic Dale McAvena of Wellington Township, leave office.
Columbia Township’s representative, Dale Rundle, was unanimously named president of the board, replacing Stanley Wares of Olmsted Falls, who has not been reappointed to the board.
LaGrange Township Trustee Gary Burnett, who was among those pushing for McConnell’s ouster, said Rundle was widely seen as a peacemaker who could reunite the fractured board. Burnett said he voted in favor of not appealing the lawsuit to try to bring the board back together.
“I hope and pray that the board goes back to working together and quits the infighting because our customers lose,” Burnett said.
Rundle, who had voted against McConnell’s removal, said both sides had approached him about taking over as president.
He said he has high hopes that a number of the issues that have divided the board, including concerns about the accuracy of the minutes, can be addressed during a special meeting he called for next Wednesday. Rundle told the board members he wants them to use the meeting to work out their differences and move forward.
“I know these people, they can pull together,” Rundle said after the meeting. “They will pull together.”
Rochester Township Trustee Amy Szmania, a staunch McConnell ally, was named the board’s secretary-treasurer, succeeding Dora Miller, who had represented Rochester before her term ended with the new year and had consistently voted against McConnell.
Penfield Township Trustee Rick Conrad, another McConnell ally, also suggested that the board seek a new law firm because of the legal advice Rural Water had received from lawyers Matt Dooley and Dennis O’Toole over the McConnell dispute. He said the board was “led astray” by their attorneys in a legal fight that cost more than $100,000.
Dooley had come under fire earlier in the meeting from several board members for conversations he had earlier in the day with Assistant County Prosecutor Gerald Innes over a dispute about who will represent Wellington Township. Dooley said the matter was a Wellington Township issue, not a Rural Water one and he knew little about it.
Before McAvena, who was defeated in his bid to remain a Wellington Township trustee in November, left office at the end of 2013, he and his fellow trustees named the township’s fiscal officer, Louise Grosse, to the board.
But Wellington Township Trustee Nancy Fisher said that the trustees voted this week to rescind Grosse’s appointment over concerns about her attendance at other meetings as well as health issues. They instead named Bernie Nirode, who had represented the township at Rural Water until the trustees removed him in 2010, to serve on the water board.
Fisher said she and her fellow trustees made a mistake removing Nirode four years ago. She also said the trustees shouldn’t have appointed Grosse to replace McAvena in December because of a township rule that requires board appointments to be made at the first meeting of the year.
Fisher said there was a push from Rural Water to accept the appointment of Grosse rather than Nirode, which prompted her to contact Innes.
Innes said Wednesday that he and Dooley agreed it would be best for Wellington Township not to seat a Rural Water representative until Innes has a chance to further review the issue and determine how to proceed.