Outcome in legal case could call into question recent decisions by Nelsonville City Council

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — A state appeals court is deciding who has the legitimate right to two seats on the Nelsonville City Council. 

Depending on the court’s decision, it could mean undoing some council decisions over the past four months, which could expose the city to some liability, according to legal experts. 

The case stems from former council President Rita Nguyen resigning from the position earlier this year.

“I hereby tender my resignation as council president and as council member altogether,” Nguyen wrote in a Feb. 17 email.

Within 24 hours, she sent a follow up email rescinding her resignation. 

After that, she continued to act as president, even though several council members accepted her resignation, according to documents in a lawsuit filed in April. 

Dave Carney, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University and expert in municipal law, said this complicates the legal analysis. 

“The fact that they let her back on to council and let her keep sitting at the table makes it look like they accepted her rescission,” Carney said. 

A couple of days prior to Nguyen’s resignation, another council member resigned, which opened a seat. 

The council voted to fill the empty seat with Tony Dunfee at a meeting about a month later.

However, Nguyen, still acting as president at that point, appointed Sue Powell to fill the seat at a meeting a couple of days after Dunfee was voted in.

Nguyen and Powell were blocked from sitting on council in subsequent meetings, and new council President Gregg Clement then appointed someone to fill Nguyen’s seat. 

“And all of that makes for an unholy mess,” Carney said. 

In their lawsuit, Nguyen and Powell argue they are legally entitled to be on council, and now it’s up to the judges to decide who has the right to those seats. 

Carney suspects the “messiness” of the facts and timeline makes this case particularly challenging for the judges.

The court will have to decide if Nguyen’s rescission is valid, but the city charter doesn’t address rescissions and there isn’t a lot of legal precedent. 

There’s clear precedent for situations where a specific date is given for resignation and the rescission comes before that date, Carney said. However, Nguyen’s email doesn’t include a date, although the language suggests it was effective immediately. 

“I will not be attending any other meetings. I am done!!!” Nguyen wrote in her resignation email. 

Another issue the judges face is Powell’s claim to a seat. 

Nguyen appointed Powell to a seat after rescinding her resignation, so this goes back to whether she was still council president at the time. 

Also, the city charter has a provision that allows the council to fill a vacant seat, but there are conflicting interpretations of the procedure.

If the court rules in Nguyen and Powell’s favor, it could subject some of the ordinances passed since her resignation to review, Carney said.

“If there were close votes where the illegally appointed councilmen made the difference, you would have to wonder whether or not those are valid legislative actions,” Carney said. 

Undoing ordinances could significantly affect the city — and potentially expose it to liability — and the court can take that into consideration in its decision, Carney said. 

The court of appeals is supposed to treat this case as a priority, but the longer it takes to decide, the better it looks for the defendants, Carney said. 

That’s because the longer the current council keeps making decisions, the more disruptive it would be to unwind them.