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06-28-05 St. Henry councilors accused of a violation

By Janie Southard

  ST. HENRY -- Two community members claim St. Henry council members violated Ohio's Sunshine Law by asking them to leave a sidewalk committee meeting in March.

  Residents Karen Ranly and Deb Zahn during a Monday night full council meeting requested that the minutes from the March sidewalk committee meeting be amended to show they were asked to leave a public meeting. They also say Diana Schulze's name was omitted from the minutes.
  "Let the minutes show accurately and publicly exactly what happened at this meeting. As they stand, the minutes are wrong," Zahn said Monday.
  Zahn and other neighbors in the Osterholt subdivision had been opposing placing sidewalks in their neighborhood. The residents had been saying the dead-end neighborhood does not need sidewalks and that sidewalks will only ruin the area's landscaping.
  Village councilors Vince Lefeld and Frank Albers, who are on the sidewalk committee with councilor Robert Rengers, say they told the residents the committee would not discuss the sidewalks as long as the residents were present at the meeting. The committee said they needed to discuss legal aspects that were not public.  "It was your own decision to leave. We did not ask you to leave," Lefeld said during the Monday meeting.
  The minutes from the meeting currently say, "Both guests then decided to leave on their own, asking that when a final plan of action is decided to let them know. The meeting then proceeded with members reviewing enclosed info and decided to bring up discussion and some options in executive session at next meeting with council only."  
  Mayor Lavern Schulze said it appeared the sidewalk committee had violated the law by asking residents to leave a public meeting. He recently attended a meeting in Columbus on open meetings' law (Sunshine Laws).
  "If you did not go into executive session to discuss legal matters, there was no reason for the public to leave the meeting. So it looks like you can't say you had a meeting at all," Schulze said.
  Albers agreed an executive session should have been called.
  Village Clerk Ruth Miller pointed out the minutes from the March meeting, of which Zahn and Ranly had copies, were only a rough draft and had not been approved by the committee.
  Schulze insisted the committee vote immediately to approve the minutes. Lefeld made the motion to approve, but there was no second. Thus, the motion died.
  About a dozen visitors attended the council meeting Monday, most of whom were Osterholt subdivision residents. They appear to be resigned to the fact that sidewalks will be installed in their neighborhoods along Eastview Drive and Sunset Avenue. The concern now centers around whether council will pay for taking away portions of their property for the installation of sidewalks.
  In a nutshell, the sidewalk project was introduced at a May 2004 meeting, which was attended by more than 20 residents claiming there was no need for sidewalks in their dead-end subdivision. They also cited loss of property value as their 20 years of landscaping would be torn out.
  Council said the plan has always been to install sidewalks uniformly through the village for safety reasons as well as aesthetics.
  Throughout the 2004 summer village meetings the exchange, often heated, continued between Osterholt residents and council members.
  At the July 12, 2004 meeting, the Osterholt group presented information on eminent domain, which spelled out that "landowners must receive just compensation for property that is appropriated."
  Acting as advised by the village solicitor David Bruns, Lefeld said in July that council has "no intention of paying" for the property used for sidewalks.
  During the Aug. 23, 2004, meeting, council members voted to seek advice from Columbus attorneys Squire, Sanders & Dempsey L.L.P., which specializes in such property matters.
  The legal aspects council has been discussing in private meetings has dealt with the question of eminent domain, purchasing property and threat of a lawsuit by the residents in the Osterholt subdivision.
  The sidewalk situation now stands with council reviewing advice from the Columbus law firm, to which council has so far paid $3,364.


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