Court of Claims case necessitates policy change


By D. Anthony Botkin - abotkin@aimmediamidwest.com



The Orange Township Board of Trustees made a change in the township’s public records policy by approving a resolution on March 5 that removed the responsibility of custodianship of public records from the fiscal officer to the township administrator.

The change in policy was seen as a necessary move due to a pending Ohio Court of Claims cased filed in October by township resident Stacey Neff after her request for public documents was denied.

“This is just trying to move the township forward and not to have two different attorneys,” said Trustee Lisa Knapp during the March 5 meeting. “We just want to get these records there, do the right thing, and move forward.”

According to court documents, Neff filed a formal complaint alleging Knapp had not yet responded to a public records request. Then on Dec. 8, she filed an amended complaint where she stated she’d “received all items that I requested directly from the township. However, those items requested directly from Ms. Knapp have not been addressed.”

According to Neff, the records she was seeking were emails that Knapp had sent to an auditing firm. She said at the time, Knapp was accusing other township officials of embezzlement and fraud.

“I’ve been reading her accusations for years and wanted to understand if her conspiracies … lined up,” Neff said.

Neff added the accusations were posted on Knapp’s Facebook page.

In May 2017, the Ohio Auditor of State’s Office found no significant errors in an audit of the township.

At that time, Joel Spitzer, township fiscal officer, said Knapp had sent several emails to the Ohio Auditor of State alleging fraud, theft, and misuse of funds by township officials. All allegations were investigated during the audit, according to Spitzer.

A court document states, “Special Master Jeff Clark ordered the Orange Township Records Custodian and Knapp to produce various documents under seal. The deadline to submit these documents was February 21, 2018.

“By order dated February 27, 2018, Special Master Clark noted the Orange Township records custodian and Knapp had not fully complied with his January 19th order. Special Master Clark also ‘strongly urged’ respondent to seek representation in this action by Orange Township legal counsel.”

“He (Spitzer) completely ignored the last deadline,” Knapp said in an interview with The Gazette. “He’s putting the township at risk by ignoring a court order, and it’s hurting the township in the end.”

Knapp also said that Spitzer and Neff are good friends and that “it’s a conflict of interest.”

“It’s just personal,” were Knapp’s claims about Spitzer’s lack of motivation to comply with the Ohio Court of Claims order. “The rules aren’t being followed, and I want to get this off our plate and get on to running the township.”

In the March 5 trustees meeting, Spitzer defended his noncompliance with the court order.

“It was intentionally not provided to the Court of Claims as I was waiting on representation from the county prosecutor, but they said they were conflicted out. After that, I proceeded to ask Mr. Bodnar to communicate with the board about needing legal counsel due to the accusations made by Ms. Knapp,” he said.

Spitzer said there had been “zero issues with providing public records” and he didn’t think statutorily, the board could appoint a custodian since there is an acting fiscal officer.

“(It’s) delineated in the code as a direct responsibility (of the fiscal office),” he said. “I think an ethics violation just occurred because (Knapp) has ongoing litigation and just passed a resolution for personal gain.”

Knapp said she talked with Lee Bodnar, township administrator, and sought the legal advice of the township’s attorney, Mike McCarthy, before moving forward. She said her understanding was the fiscal officer was directly responsible for the financial records of the township only.

“We can appoint another person to be the public records custodian,” she said in the trustee meeting. “Many other townships have done it. In fact, some places have separate outside attorney’s appointed to perform that function.”

McCarthy said he has seen public records policies where responses are made by the department within the government entity.

“The department head is charged with that responsibility,” he said. “The township is required to have a public records policy. It is not mandated who’s going to do what.”

Knapp said the move saved the township from hiring two separate attorneys, one to represent the fiscal office and one to represent her as trustee in the Court of Claims matter. She also claimed that Bodnar would remain neutral in the position of records custodian.

Trustees approved attorney Brian Zets, of Isaac, Wiles, Burkholder and Teetor LLC, to represent the township in the Court of Claims case.

“This just could be part of the ongoing feud that you have with Mr. Spitzer,” Trustee Debbie Taranto told Knapp during the March 5 meeting. “I don’t think you can make a call to take away his job responsibilities because of an ongoing feud.”

Trustee Ryan Rivers said in his review of all the information, “I find this is all very motivated by personal intentions. It’s very disappointing that the township is being dragged into this, and now this is costing us more money as well as time.”

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By D. Anthony Botkin

abotkin@aimmediamidwest.com

Contact D. Anthony Botkin at 740-413-0902. Follow him on Twitter @dabotkin.

Contact D. Anthony Botkin at 740-413-0902. Follow him on Twitter @dabotkin.