Hillsboro City Council voted unanimously Monday to “affirm” the previous council’s decision to contract with the Paint Creek fire department – this time by passing the legislation as an emergency.
Passing the matter as an emergency is designed to insulate the city from a possible ballot initiative and associated legal maneuvers to force the city to place such an initiative on the ballot, council president Lee Koogler acknowledged Monday. Ohio law states that a measure passed as an emergency is not subject to voter referendum.
But that position is likely to face legal challenges, with supporters of a referendum for a ballot initiative that has been filed with the city arguing that council cannot reenact the measure as an emergency after the referendum has already been filed.
When council passed the legislation in November of last year, it did so by the slimmest of margins through a 4-3 vote. Five votes are needed to pass a measure as an emergency, and on Monday that action received the support of all seven voting members who make up a vastly different council than the one that considered last year’s move.
Meeting in special session Monday, council members Dick Donley, Claudia Klein, Tracy Aranyos, Ann Morris, Rebecca Wilkin, Justin Harsha and Bill Alexander all voted for a motion to suspend the rules, as well as voting unanimously for the resolution itself.
Last year, Alexander - the only returning voting member who voted against approving the Paint Creek contract - said at the time that too many financial questions had not been answered. But on Monday, he said the financials have been nailed down, and he is happy with Paint Creek’s service.
“This is a different issue,” he said after the meeting. “My vote of no (last year) was not in opposition to Paint Creek. We didn’t have all the information. That issue has been satisfied, and I’m very satisfied with the service from Paint Creek.”
The board of elections has verified the signatures on the citizens’ petition - which is designed to force a referendum on the November ballot - and sent the petition back the city. The city has taken no action since, and has adopted the position that the Paint Creek contract is not subject to referendum on the grounds that the Paint Creek contract was an administrative, not legislative, action. But a recent correspondence from an attorney representing petitioners led to council taking action Monday to pass the measure as an emergency.
Last year, several council meetings that focused on the Paint Creek contract featured a packed council chamber with citizens expressing their opposition to the plan. On Monday, the room was far from filled, but eight citizens who have routinely opposed the contract again spoke in opposition to the legislation before council.
Kirby Ellison, the former administrative assistant to former Mayor Richard Zink and a leader of the citizen petition, told council members that “it horrifies me… you’re saying that regardless of what people have done, (they) don’t have any rights.” She said council’s action was “very, very sad.”
James Matticks asked Koogler, who as president only votes in the event of a tie, if the purpose of passing the issue as an emergency was an effort to put the referendum to rest. Koogler said the city’s position has consistently been that the matter is not subject to referendum, but added, “If council passes this as an emergency, I think it would end the threat of referendum, yes.”
Chris Mathews told council that disbanding Hillsboro Fire & Rescue in favor of Paint Creek will ultimately cause property taxes to increase.
Pam Limes said the administration has tried to stop the referendum from the beginning, then ignored it, and that she and other referendum supporters were trying to “give the city the right to vote.”
Steve Karnes, a Paint Township trustee and former member of the Paint Creek fire board, asked Todd Wilkin, the safety and service director, whether the administration had begun negotiating with Paint Creek prior to the third reading of last year’s resolution.
“Yes,” Wilkin replied.
Former Hillsboro fire chief Jerry Powell distributed a financial analysis that he said showed that the Paint Creek contract was costing nearly $500,000 more than the Hillsboro firefighters’ union proposal, saying the cost breakdown “comes down heavily on the side of the union and the firefighters.”
Richard Stiffler said that more than 400 people had signed the citizens’ petition, and asked, “Are you just going to ignore those people?”
Several recently laid off and former Hillsboro firefighters were in attendance Monday, but aside from Powell, only Dave Lowell spoke, urging the city to sign a statewide mutual aid agreement. Wilkin said the city is working with the Emergency Management Agency on such a plan.
After the meeting, former Hillsboro firefighter Ryan Passet, who often spoke for the union at council meetings, said council’s action was “a way to avoid letting voters have a voice.”
Passet said that all told, more than 900 Hillsboro residents had signed three various petitions in favor of preserving Hillsboro Fire & Rescue or placing the matter on the ballot.
Passet also noted that the wording of the resolution passed by council on Monday varied from the wording of last year’s resolution. The resolution read on Monday authorized the safety director to “enter into an agreement” with Paint Creek. Last year’s resolution authorized Wilkin to “negotiate” with Paint Creek.
In its only other business Monday, council also passed as an emergency a resolution designed to regulate where cell towers can be placed in Hillsboro. The matter came up recently when a cell phone provider sought to locate a tower in a residential area in the southeast part of town.
The new law makes residential areas off limits and requires Planning Commission approval for cell tower placement.