MILFORD, Ohio — Milford City Council will pay $37,000 to settle a lawsuit accusing it of holding secret, illegal meetings to advance the sale of property to FC Cincinnati for a new training complex in Clermont County.
Council approved the settlement in April, ending the lawsuit and agreeing to attend three hours of remedial training on Ohio’s open meetings laws.
“When city leaders choose to hammer out backroom deals like Milford’s taxpayer-funded $4-million-dollar FCC soccer training facility deal in violation of Ohio’s Open Meetings Act, the public is unable to see if government is spending tax dollars wisely,” Rachel Richardson said. “This is precisely why open meetings laws exist – and why we should all care when elected officials violate them.”
City officials admit to violating state law, but say they “did not intentionally violate the act or hold any secret meetings,” according to the April 24 agreed court entry.
“We agreed to stipulate to technical violations … in order to settle the lawsuit and to avoid having to spend many additional thousands of our taxpayers' dollars on attorney fees and court costs,” said Milford’s law director Mike Minnear.
FC Cincinnati broke ground on the $30 million training complex in September. It replaces the current Expressway Park softball complex located near Milford Parkway and Lila Avenue.
Last July the club entered into an agreement with the city of Milford, Clermont County, Clermont County Port Authority and Clermont County Ohio Convention and Visitors Bureau for the project, which included a 1 percent lodging tax increase.
But long before the deal emerged for the first time at a July public meeting, the lawsuit alleged that Milford City Council had been in secret negotiations for months.
“Residents have had no opportunity to read this (deal), to ask questions … all of the discussions have taken place behind the scenes, illegally, and moreover, they’ve been taking place since February, at least,” Richardson said in an interview last year.
Richardson, a Milford resident and freelance journalist who has written for WCPO, scoured documents the city released to her through a public records request, and said she found proof that city leaders were hiding their deal with FC Cincinnati.
For example, she said a demolition company applied for a demolition permit from the city 11 days before Milford council voted to draft the ordinance on the FC Cincinnati deal.
“That goes to show just how advanced this deal was in its planning stages and just how confident FCC was that the deal would be approved by council,” Richardson said.
As part of the settlement, council agreed not to hold special meetings where it votes or passes ordinances unless it specifically mentions what it plans to do in advance through meeting notices.
Council also agreed not to meet as a Committee of the Whole without first providing the public with 24 hours advance notice. It also agreed to prepare separate meeting minutes for committees and subcommittees.
“A person filing a lawsuit alleging a violation of the OMA (Open Meetings Act) does not have to show that harm or injury resulted from a violation and the motive for filing is irrelevant,” Minnear said in a statement. “They just have to show that there was a violation, no matter how technical or unintentional the violation may have been.”
But Richardson’s attorney, Matt Miller-Novak, said taxpayers have a right to know what government officials are doing.
“Milford’s ‘technical' violations as it calls them resulted in less transparency in a transaction involving a few million dollars in taxpayers’ debt,” Miller-Novak said. “When a government does not feel it owes its people the duty to provide them information, or when people who make laws don’t follow laws, our entire society is harmed … it is a shame that Milford’s lawmakers find the Open Meetings Act as a mere nuisance and thinks carelessness is an excuse.”
The city will pay $35,000 in Richardson’s attorney fees and $2,000 to her, which she said she will donate to CASA for Clermont Kids.
This is the second time Richardson has sued Milford City Council. She sued in 2016 over a series of illegal meetings about a hotly contested apartment complex at Milford Main.
The city settled that 2016 lawsuit and paid $36,000 in Richardson’s legal fees. As part of the settlement, Milford council members attended remedial training on the state’s open meetings laws, and agreed not to violate those laws again.
“This is now the second such lawsuit in two years,” Richardson said. “While I find Milford’s claims that it did not intentionally violate the Open Meetings Act incredulous and, frankly, dubious … perhaps this time council will finally learn how to conduct the public’s business in public as they are legally and ethically required to and there will be no need for future lawsuits.”
Richardson is also taking aim at Milford school officials, accusing them of similar open meetings violations.
She believes the school board privately agreed to a $50,000 compensation agreement with FC Cincinnati related to its practice facility, according to a lawsuit she filed on April 15 against the Milford Exempted Village School District.
“The board held private quorums, whether in email, telephonically, in-person, or round robin, to discuss these matters without providing public notice or record of these discussions and actions,” according to the lawsuit filed in Clermont County Court of Common Pleas.
Milford School District Board of Education President George Lucas said the board has seen the complaint and “is currently reviewing it with legal counsel to prepare a response.”