Lee Koogler’s cell phone rings constantly, and he continually glances at the numbers that pop up as he marches back and forth from his North High Street law office to the county courthouse across the street multiple times a day.
The calls come from clients or court officials regarding cases being handled by him in his role as a local attorney. They come from city council members or other city workers or officials in regard to routine issues facing Hillsboro, since Koogler is president of city council. They come from fellow lawyers with a question about upcoming bar association events or activities, because Koogler is president of the Highland County Bar Association.
They come more frequently these days from Hillsboro Rotarians since Koogler assumed the presidency of that club a month ago. They come from child support officials regarding issues involving Koogler’s duties as hearing officer for the Child Support Enforcement Agency.
The calls come from village of Highland officials asking for opinions from Koogler in his role as civil legal advisor for the village. He is legal counsel for Ohio Elks Southern Region, and handles those issues as the calls come in. Other times, the calls might be in regard to scheduling issues in connection with his duties as coach of his son’s soccer team.
Lee Koogler is a busy man.
But over the past eight-plus months, Koogler has fielded more calls and been part of more meetings – formally and informally – on the subject of the criminal investigation against Hillsboro Mayor Drew Hastings and the indictments that came last month from a grand jury. Koogler often finds himself a man in the middle, being pulled from all sides.
There are some residents, city workers and others who urge Koogler and city council to take a tougher public stance against Hastings. There are constituents who take the opposite position, believing the investigation and indictments to be part of a “witch hunt” or payback for Hastings’ past actions as mayor, and who encourage Koogler to defend the mayor, or at least let the court proceedings play out.
“It has weighed heavily on me since the mayor’s indictments,” said Koogler in an interview this week. “I’ve wrestled greatly with these issues.”
As mayor, Hastings has always been a lightning rod for controversy. But after a seven-month investigation, Hastings was indicted last month for election falsification, theft, theft in office and tampering with records, based on questions about his residency, the alleged use of a city dumpster for personal items, and the circumstances surrounding a $500 rebate of a vacant property fee he had paid. The criminal charges upped the ante not only for Hastings, but for Koogler in his unofficial role of arbiter among city officials and employees.
Koogler said his legal training reminds him, “I have to try to think through all sides of an issue. At this point there is a presumption of innocence for the mayor. As a criminal attorney, I believe in it. At this point in time, with a trial in roughly 90 days, the best course of conduct is to take no official action and let due process take its course.”
But Koogler makes no secret that he is deeply concerned about the allegations against Hastings, and he sees the effect the case is having within “the walls of city government” where “things are more tense than usual,” he said.
“I think employees have a lot of questions unanswered and are concerned also about what will come of our city over time,” said Koogler. “However, like all things, this too shall pass, and those who continue to work and operate within the city will do their jobs.”
The case is having an impact not just on city workers and officials, but on several projects that are basically on hold until the issues surrounding Hastings are resolved.
Koogler said city council is taking a cautious approach to projects initiated by Hastings that include large expenditures, even if many council members are on board with the projects. He said that if Hastings is convicted of a felony – which would remove him from office – a change in leadership in the mayor’s office might change the direction of some initiatives.
“In times of uncertainty, it’s best to take a wait-and-see approach before moving forward with larger projects,” said Koogler. But he said projects crucial to normal functions are continuing unfazed, such as street paving.
If Hastings is forced to step down, it would be Koogler, in fact, who is designated by law to take up residence in the mayor’s office, at least temporarily. Koogler doesn’t deny that he has spent time considering that scenario.
“I would do a disservice not to think about what steps I would take to facilitate continuity of government,” said Koogler. He said he does not hope for that to happen, and “it’s just an idea at this time.”
In the meantime, both Hastings and Koogler have acknowledged that their relationship has been strained in recent months, with little direct communication between the two. But they met earlier this week for an extended and often frank conversation, something Koogler described as “cathartic” for both of them.
“As the year has progressed, our relationship has been more tense,” said Koogler. “We’re both at fault for that. But we recently met to clear the air, to some degree.”
Koogler said public service is a privilege, and serving the citizenry is the ultimate honor, something he said applies to both him and the mayor.
“He, too, is a public official entrusted to serve their needs,” said Koogler. “He and I may not always agree, and council may not always agree, but we must still work together.”
Despite his hectic schedule, Koogler tries to balance his professional duties with his family life, carving out time to relax with his wife, Katharine, and their three children, Abigail, 11, and twins Hannah and Michael, who both turned 9 on Tuesday.
Koogler briefly explored the notion of running for county commissioner earlier this year, but decided his schedule was hectic enough, saying at the time, “While I was greatly interested in the position and would have enjoyed the ability to do more at a county level, at this point in time I’m going to focus on the full plate that I already have.”
Koogler, who first joined city council in 2006 before being elected council president in 2009, said that he often works behind the scenes to “solve small problems so they don’t become large problems.” He said operating the city requires a team effort from all elected officials from the mayor, the auditor, the law director and himself.
“It’s our job to do what’s best for the citizens,” he said.
But he admits to getting little sleep many nights, and the stress associated with the Hastings case for everyone connected to city government has resulted in Koogler more frequently being called upon to serve as a referee in regard to issues simmering just below the surface.
He bristles at suggestions that he has been part of secret cabals or plotting factions on either side, even as he routinely hears such rumors. He said he works with all sides and keeps an open mind, even when his attempt to stay neutral wins no friends on either side.
“But that’s the role to be played sometimes,” said Koogler. “We’ll see how things progress with the indictments, and at the conclusion we’ll know where we’re at and what we need to do.”
He glances at his cell phone, and politely excuses himself. There are calls to be returned.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.
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