Closed door meetings now open for West Chester Township finance officer

WEST CHESTER, Ohio -- The watchdog of taxpayer dollars in West Chester Township is now allowed to regularly sit inside closed-door trustee meetings for the first time since taking office in April 2012.

New Trustee President George Lang and newly-elected Mark Welch, who’s now the vice-president of the board, requested Tuesday at the first meeting of the year that Fiscal Officer Bruce Jones be invited to attend executive sessions.

The change was effective immediately, as Jones followed the trustees into executive session after the public meeting. The majority decision signals a shift in elected leadership on the board, which has battled a long-standing clash over transparency in the township.

Jones, who’s now under legal review by county and state officials for including attorney-client privileged information in an email intended to stop former trustee Catherine Stoker’s re-election, was previously not allowed to attend an executive session unless he was invited in by the trustees when the topic involved him.

“It’s just poor policy to have ‘looky loos’ sitting in on executive session, and that’s what our conversation has been off and on,” Stoker said at her final meeting as a trustee on Dec. 17. 

The board’s former position had stirred up controversy since Jones took office, given the dramatic change in practice since former township fiscal officer Pat Williams was routinely invited into executive sessions during her more than 30-year tenure. 

According to Ohio law, executive sessions can only be called to conference with an attorney; discuss personnel matters; consider the purchase or sale of public property; conduct negotiations with public employees; and discuss the details of security arrangements and matters required to be confidential by federal law or state statutes. 

Those in favor of allowing the fiscal officer inside those closed door meetings say West Chester was the only one of more than 1,300 cities who barred their fiscal officer from ending. They believe a fiscal officer’s presence in executive session is critical to operating a transparent township government.

"He was elected by the people. He is a watch dog of the people’s money and for him to not be allowed in executive sessions for what I perceive to be purely political reasons is unconscionable," said Lang.

But those opposed are concerned that Jones’ presence at executive session meetings when not relevant to the discussion could jeopardize township relationships due to the sensitivity of the topics discussed.

Trustee Lee Wong was the minority Tuesday as the three officials discussed whether or not Jones should be able to sit in.

“I have no problem with him going in for any fiscal matter, financial matter, but when we are dealing with confidential negotiations, legal matters, I mean he’s should have no input in those. He’s a fiscal officer,” said Wong. “He’s not a trustee.”

In addition to sitting in on executive session meetings, Jones will also now have an opportunity to speak at the end of each trustee meeting.

The Trustees unanimously voted in favor of changing the “trustee comments” portion of the public meetings to “elected official comments,” which means Jones no longer has to give his remarks during portion reserved for public comments.

Jones took advantage of his new opportunity to speak at the end of Tuesday’s meeting, talking for approximately three minutes about his reaction to the trustees’ changes.

“This is a reasonable conclusion considering my nearly four decades of professional experience,” he said. “I think it’s just reasonable to begin to understand the importance of good communication given the expenditures in the township and the fiscal officer’s need to be a part to the executive sessions.”

He also publicly acknowledged the investigation involving him for the first time since Stoker's allegation at the Dec. 17 meeting.

“I feel really comfortable with where I’m at. I’m not here because I spend a lot of money at all. I put my trust in the people. I trust the feeling of common sense,” said Jones. 

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