Nelsonville Council Controversy Brings Policy Questions, Demands For Firings

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NELSONVILLE — A fight over the way in which a Nelsonville City Council member was appointed to his seat devolved into questions about the legitimacy of the city attorney and the lack of rules overseeing city council proceedings. Now the issue is headed to the council’s Judiciary Committee.

During the main discussion at a recent special meeting, Councilman Greg Smith fought against audience calls for former council president Dan Sherman’s removal and the removal of City Attorney Garry Hunter, who was not present at the meeting.

“I think Dan will openly tell you he blew it, and he blew it bad,” Smith said. “But I will not support any effort to try to destroy somebody.”

Sherman, who was unseated as president at the meeting but remains on council, has been in the middle of the controversy over the swearing-in and consequent removal of Dottie Fromal. Fromal was sworn in to a vacant seat on the council in July with three votes in her favor. It was only after the vote that council realized four votes were needed for a majority.

Without a majority vote, City Attorney Garry Hunter gave a legal opinion to the council saying the appointment was not valid. Fromal was quickly removed from the seat.

According to the city charter, after 30 days the president of the council (at the time, Sherman) could make the appointment without the approval of the entire council. He chose Dereck Bowens, who had only received one vote in the original appointment process — from Sherman himself.

The city charter states that one is qualified to be elected if they have been “continuously a resident and a qualified elector (voter) of the city of one year next prior to their election.” The Athens Messenger reported that Fromal questioned the qualifications of Sherman to appoint Bowens, considering he had only been a registered voter in the city for nine months.

Fromal and her attorney, John Haseley, have already said they plan to take the case to court over Sherman’s qualifications to be an eligible member of council and make decisions as president of council.

In an effort to address concerns, Bowens told the council at the special meeting he was sworn-in a second time, “after hours…the firefighters witnessed it.” When asked, none of the council members said they had prior knowledge of the swearing-in.

“It was done the second time to get me into the one-year tenure, residency requirement,” Bowens said.

These problems have arisen in part because of a lack of rules of order for the council, according to Councilman Taylor Sappington.

“My point is that we should change the rules moving forward to prevent such a thing, because not all of us will be on council forever,” Sappington said.

But the city is going to have to figure out their issues on their own. In terms of whether a state agency might intervene in a local government matter like the one in Nelsonville, Ohio Attorney General’s Office spokesperson Dan Tierney said the state gives “broad latitude to our local government,” and there is no specific agency in Ohio that oversees city councils and local governments in times of controversy.

Nelsonville is also a Home Rule charter city, which allows them to self-govern and make laws and decisions not specifically spelled out in the Ohio Revised Code.

Fromal’s lawyer has said he will argue the “quo warranto” provision of the Ohio Revised Code which calls for the removal of a public official through a civil lawsuit, if the official “usurps, intrudes into, or unlawfully holds or exercises a public office.”

Tierney said this provision is commonly used when residency requirements come into question in local governments.

While the quo warranto can be used, Tierney said local governments are free to decide their own rules, based on their charter, in removing public officials.

“Preference is given to local processes,” Tierney said.

While arguing about whether Hunter’s legal opinions should be taken as law or just under advisement, members of council and the audience brought up the multiple absences of Hunter during council meetings.

Councilmember Grant Guda addressed audience concerns about Hunter’s fitness for the role.

“That’s actually been in discussion for a couple months now, because multiple of us have been very unhappy with his service lately, and he’s getting paid a lot for what he does, and a lot more than some other cities,” Guda said.

Former Council President Ed Mash was in attendance at the meeting, and warned the council to get rules and procedures in place so they could get back to addressing the many needs of the city.

“This town is gonna die,” Mash said. “If we don’t change it, it’s gonna die.”

Hunter has not responded to requests for comment.

The Judiciary Committee of the Nelsonville City Council will meet on Monday at 8 p.m. in the council chambers. According to an announcement about the meeting, the committee will discuss city council rules, “eligibility of council members,” the city charter, council ethics and training and council policies and procedures. The meeting is open to the public.