By Frank Lewis
First Ward Portsmouth City Councilman Kevin W. Johnson says there were multiple reasons why he chose to solicit outside legal assistance, and that the least of those reasons was the challenge from City Solicitor John Haas to hire an attorney since he could not represent them on the issue of possible charter changes.
In April, the Daily Times broke a story that two members of City Council and even a third to some degree, had been meeting and exchanging emails concerning possibly taking to charter amendments to voters. One dealt with the mandated number of employees in both the police department and the fire department. The other dealt with changing the status of the City Auditor and Solicitor to appointed rather than elected.
It was during a discussion on those issues on April 28, 2014, that Haas told Council he could no longer represent them because of the direct involvement of his position with the issue. He then told Council they should get outside legal assistance. That is when Johnson stepped up and hired Portsmouth attorney Steven Rodeheffer.
“He (Haas) leveled four charges,” Johnson said.
One was that members of Council held meetings in violation of the Open Meetings Act.
“It requires four to make a majority and three of us met,” Johnson said.
Johnson said Haas alleged certain members of Council had refused to comply with a Public Records Request. Another was that unnamed individuals have been involved in the destruction of public records in violation of Ohio’s sunshine laws. The final charge Johnson said Haas leveled at those members of Council was that certain Council members had met with department heads and employees in violation of the Charter.
“Each one of those carries penalties under the law,” Johnson said. “And that was an attack upon my moral integrity and I took it as such. So as soon as he mentioned that he would recuse himself from these because of the issues of our even having the nerve to discuss a Charter change regarding his position that he advised then that Council get their own representation.”
In a letter to Haas, Rodeheffer said - “Basically you have made four charges that are serious and as the City Solicitor you are required by law to proceed with those charges.” Which he didn’t.
Johnson said one of the most severe consequences of Haas’s interpretation of the City Charter has, according to Johnson, now made it impossible for members of Council to communicate with department heads.
“We assumed we could in the past because there’s two different sections within the Charter that relate to communicating with department heads,” Johnson said.
In his letter to Haas, Rodeheffer said - “Your impetuous and ill-informed tirade to City Council has accomplished nothing other than to risk the resurrection of the polarization of our Council that it has experienced in the past. Perhaps allowance should be made for the tone and content of the speech given the fact that one of the ideas being considered is to change the City Charter to make your position an appointed one as opposed to an elected one. Nonetheless, it is disappointing that you took the initiative to cut off free and open debate of the merits of this idea by attacking the integrity of Councilmen that have no ax to grind in this controversy other than to pursue the best interests of the citizens of the City of Portsmouth.
“My final comments are directed to that portion of your speech which obviously was intended to drive a wedge between our new City Manager and members of Council. By all accounts, Mr. Allen is doing a fine job given the lack of resources and other obstacles facing him. My client, Kevin W. Johnson, fully supports Mr. Allen in his efforts to turn our city around and resents the fact that you would imply that his intentions are otherwise. In addition to Johnson, former Mayor and Sixth Ward Councilman Steve Sturgill, and, at times, Fifth Ward Councilman Gene Meadows, were involved in the conversations about the charter changes.”
Johnson said Friday to his knowledge Haas had not responded to the comments by Rodeheffer.
Frank Lewis can be reached at 740-353-3101, Ext. 1928, or on Twitter @FrankLewispdt.