HUNTINGTON TWP. — Trustees voted Monday to join a proposed lawsuit against the Rural Lorain County Water Authority to challenge the legality of a provision in the Rural Water bylaws that was used to remove Pittsfield Township Trustee Mark McConnell from the board in May.
“My thought was that this has to be settled,” said Mary Beth Derikito, the Huntington Township trustee who sits on the Rural Water board.
McConnell was first voted off the board through a secret vote of 17 to 9 on May 15. The vote was redone in public a week later after questions were raised about the propriety of the secret ballot process. The second vote was 13 to 11 in favor of removing McConnell with two members absent.
McConnell had been accused of making unfounded accusations against fellow Rural Water board members and lobbying to have some of them not reappointed to the board, allegations he has denied. Pittsfield Township has challenged McConnell’s removal in court.
Assistant County Prosecutor Gerald Innes said other townships had inquired about joining the lawsuit in support of McConnell, but he said those townships lacked the legal standing to do so. He concluded, however, that they could launch a separate lawsuit challenging the legality of the bylaws, which he can find no record of having been approved by a court.
“It seems pretty clear to me that this By-Law, having never been approved by the court, is totally void, (is) a violation of RLCWA’s own petition and the court judgment entry approving its establishment,” Innes wrote in a letter sent to the townships that are members of Rural Water.
Innes also said the bylaws might violate Ohio laws that state that the only way to remove someone from public office is through a finding of just cause.
Still Innes also held out hope that the dispute could be resolved without additional litigation.
“My hope is that this matter can be resolved through discussions with counsel, but if not, this sort of action will be an appropriate course of action for the Township members of the RLCWA,” Innes wrote.
Matt Dooley, an attorney for Rural Water, said he disagreed with Innes’ legal analysis. He said although the bylaws themselves might not be in the court file, the court documents creating Rural Water would have allowed for bylaws to govern how the agency functioned.
“A lawsuit has not been filed, but if it is, we’ll respond accordingly,” Dooley said. “The manner and selection of board members was included in the original petition and it is contained verbatim in the bylaws. The original petition did not include, nor was it required to include, procedures for removals.”
Rural Water President Stanley Wares, who voted in favor of removing McConnell, said Wednesday that he was unaware of the possibility of another lawsuit. Wares tabled a proposal by Penfield Township Trustee Rick Conrad, who sits on the Rural Water board, to review the bylaws at a board meeting last month.
“We’ve got a fractured board there and I’m trying my utmost to bring it back together,” Wares said. “They keep throwing stuff at us. I’m kind of at a loss for words.”
Wares said the Rural Water board isn’t the appropriate group to examine the legality of the bylaws, something he said the board’s lawyers are doing.
“We can’t really review the bylaws because it has something to do with the courts,” he said.
Conrad said although Penfield hasn’t voted on whether to join the possible lawsuit against Rural Water, he believes that will likely happen. He said he wants to make sure that the majority can’t remove those who disagree with them in the future.
“I’m afraid if something isn’t done and I keep talking, they’re going to vote me off,” Conrad said.
Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or firstname.lastname@example.org.