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Milford denies lawsuit's allegations that council held illegal, closed-door meetings

Public hearings scheduled on Milford Main purchase
Milford denies lawsuit's allegations that council held illegal, closed-door meetings
Posted at 12:00 PM, Sep 20, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-20 12:00:50-04

MILFORD, Ohio -- The Milford City Council will host the first of several public meetings Tuesday evening to solicit input from residents about what should be done with the Milford Main property.

However, according to a lawsuit filed against the city by Milford resident Rachel Richardson, the city's decision to embrace transparency and public input regarding the property defies an old trend.

In her suit against the city, filed in Clermont County Common Pleas Court, Richardson alleges that the city council committed numerous violations of Ohio's Open Meetings Act by entering executive sessions without stating a legally permissible reason, deliberating the future of Milford Main and authorizing the purchase of the property in a vote behind closed doors.

"Numerous records provided by the city itself indisputably show that council violated the city's charter and state law not once or twice, but on a number of occasions on a number of issues," Richardson said. "It's clear that these kinds of illegal, closed-door meetings are the rule in Milford, not the exception. Milford residents deserve better from their elected officials."

Milford Main, a 3.5-acre property located at 525 Main St., is the former site of a century-old school building near the Five Points intersection.

The city denied any wrongdoing in its answer to Richardson's complaint.

Larry Barbiere, the attorney representing the city in the lawsuit, declined to comment because the case is still in litigation. Milford law director Michael Minniear and Mayor Laurie Howland both declined to comment on the particulars of the case. A message seeking comment was left for Interim City Manager Pam Holbrook on Monday.

Richardson's evidence includes official city minutes that provide accounts of votes taken by the city council to enter executive session for reasons not permitted by Ohio law, such as "real estate matters" or "personnel." In one instance, the city council voted to enter executive session without stating a reason.

Richardson also has emails sent and received by city officials, obtained via public-records requests. In a Jan. 29 email exchange with Milford resident Cathy Barney, Holbrook told Barney that she had been authorized to negotiate the purchase of the Milford Main property in an executive session.

"Council authorized me to negotiate the purchase of the school and that was done confidentially, as permitted by the charter; there were no votes taken, just an authorization by council," Holbrook wrote. "Council still has to approve the contract to purchase and that will be done in an open council meeting and voted on by council in a public meeting."

Holbrook signed an offer sheet for the purchase of the property from the Milford Exempted Village School District on Jan. 12 for $360,000. The city officially closed the sale of the property July 6.

"While I appreciate council's newfound commitment to transparency, I find the timing of these meetings to be suspect," Richardson said. "These public meetings ought to have occurred before the city spent $360,000 from its general fund. Instead, for the past year, council chose to deliberate on Milford Main in a series of coordinated, secretive and illegal closed-door meetings that were anything but transparent. You can't unring that bell."

The Ohio Open Meetings Act allows for closed-door meetings of public officials to be conducted for certain reasons, such as to discuss pending litigation, personnel issues, or the purchase of property. No official action can be taken at an executive session, and all votes of a governing body must be held in public meetings.

The Open Meetings Act permits executive sessions "to consider the purchase of property for public purposes, or for the sale of property at competitive bidding, if premature disclosure of information would give an unfair competitive or bargaining advantage to a person whose personal, private interest is adverse to the general public interest."

Richardson said that in a conversation with a council member after a March 17, 2015, executive session, the council member told her, "I don't believe it's that far along at all. The city is not even firmly thinking about a purchase."

If the court agrees with her allegations that closed-door meetings were improperly held, Richardson would be legally entitled to be paid $500 per violation by the city, plus court costs and "reasonable attorney's fees." Richardson said, if successful, she plans to donate any money she wins from the case to a Milford-based nonprofit.

Sweetheart deal?

Though the allegations are not made in her lawsuit, Richardson also alleges that officials attempted to negotiate with churches neighboring Milford Main for a long-term lease.

In February emails between Richardson and former council member Jeff Lykins, Lykins told Richardson that Howland had been trying to gain support from the rest of the city council to support giving Milford First United Methodist Church a 20-year, $100,000 lease to use a portion of the property for parking.

"Laurie did lobby several times for the deal with the Methodist Church," Lykins wrote. "They wanted to buy it for $100,000 and pay the city over 20 years. They basically would have bought everything from the rear of the Main building back. This proposal came from the church. Laurie attended several meetings without permission of council to negotiate, in fact council's stated position then was that Milford was not interested in the Milford Main site."

Lykins did not respond to a message seeking further comment.

Howland has publicly denied attempting to strike a deal with either the Methodist church or St. Andrew the Apostle Catholic Church -- which also neighbors the property -- for the lease or sale of a portion of the property on multiple occasions.

"There is no agreement with the churches," Howland said. "Never has been."

However, in April 2015 emails Richardson's attorneys obtained from St. Andrew via subpoena, Howland -- using her personal work email address -- laid out a multiple-step process to gain support from the council for such an arrangement.

"A big hurdle is showing enough council members that both churches are financially interested in working with the city so that the city does not have to carry it alone," Howland wrote in an April 14, 2015, email.

The city received a letter Aug. 26 from the Freedom From Religion Foundation that warned that such a proposal would "invite avoidable litigation."

"This sort of 'sweetheart' deal -- benefitting a third party at taxpayer expense -- provides a financial benefit as surely as a direct grant of taxpayer funds," wrote FFRF attorney Ryan Jayne. "Providing such a benefit to churches violates both the U.S. and Ohio constitutions."

In his response to the FFRF on Aug. 29, Minniear told the organization it had been misinformed by its complainant.

"The city is not presently considering any future use of the property including the ones specifically referred to in your letter," Minniear wrote. "In the coming months, the City will hold several public meetings in which citizens, developers, and other interested parties will be able to present their ideas for how the property should be used and developed. Whatever the City decides regarding the eventual use of the property will be based solely on the best interests of the citizens and taxpayers of the City of Milford."

Editor's note: Rachel Richardson has worked as a contributor for WCPO.com.