Hillsboro City Auditor Gary Lewis had still not approved by Friday afternoon a purchase order for the demolition of the former Armintrout building on Gov. Foraker Place owned by Mayor Drew Hastings, despite approval from the law director earlier this month.
Safety and Service Director Mel McKenzie said Friday afternoon that Lewis had still not approved the purchase order, which McKenzie had submitted Tuesday morning in regard to Hastings’ participation in the city’s Demolition Assistance Program. Under that program, the city fronts the cost of demolishing blighted properties, and then gets repaid through a five-year assessment on property taxes.
Lewis did not return a call seeking comment Friday afternoon, but on Friday morning he sent a public records request to the city and copied The Times-Gazette, asking for 13 separate documents, mostly email correspondence between various city officials on the demolition subject, most of which were provided earlier this week to The Times-Gazette by the safety and service director.
Earlier this month, Law Director Fred Beery gave his approval for the city to allow Hastings to participate in the program, saying there were no ethical or conflict issues.
On Friday, council President Lee Koogler said, “If he is treated like every other citizen, he should be afforded the same opportunity through the city.”
Council member Justin Harsha said Friday that since the law director “doesn’t have an issue” and feels the state ethics commission has ruled favorably on similar issues, “we have to trust what he says.” He said Hastings can participate “as a citizen” in such programs, but added that his only concern is that elected officials are sometimes privy to programs in a way that others might not be. “It’s a tricky situation,” and one that council members are monitoring, he said.
According to various documents and letters, Hastings wants to tear down the building because it is a crumbling structure afflicted with mold, and suffered further significant damage after a recent water line break. He plans to provide additional parking spaces on the site for tenants, including The Times-Gazette, who occupy the former city building next door, according to documents.
A few years ago, Hastings tried to convince council to purchase the building and demolish it to create public parking as part of an uptown plaza project where Gov. Trimble and Gov. Foraker place now exist. The plaza did not come to fruition, so Hastings bought the building to tear it down for private parking.
Among the items requested by Lewis in his records request Friday is a “copy of any legislation submitted and approved by Hillsboro City Council that establishes a ‘Demolition Program.’”
But McKenzie said Friday the demolition project is an administrative program included in a line item in the budget approved by city council. The city provided The Times-Gazette with a copy of the “Administrative Policy for Funding Demolition,” which spells out the requirements, processes and options for participating in the program.
McKenzie said some people have confused the demolition project with a previous grant program for demolitions operated through the Community Action Organization. He said that program no longer exists, and the city’s program is not a grant.
McKenzie said Hastings is not the first owner of the Armintrout building to explore demolishing the structure. He provided the minutes of a Design Review Board meeting from September 2016 where John “Buck” Wilkin, who owned the building at the time, discussed demolishing the structure, noting “that the building was not handicap accessible, the roof was not good, and the basement has a mold issue.”
The board voted to approve a Certificate of Appropriateness for demolition of the building. Wilkin did not carry through with the plan, but McKenzie said Friday that knowing it was previously approved for demolition and the building had been in disrepair for a lengthy period of time – further damaged by the recent water line break – had already made it an obvious candidate for the city’s Demolition Assistance Program.
Through document requests and interviews, The Times-Gazette constructed a timeline of events in regard to Hastings’ request to participate in the demolition program.
Nov. 14, 2017: Hastings, on behalf of his private development company, Firehouse Square Partners LLC, files an application of appropriateness with the Hillsboro Design Review Board to demolish the building, citing a bad roof, mold issues and saying it is “economically unfeasible to restore.” He notes that he plans to create parking spaces. The application is approved but, following Beery’s advice, Hastings sends the request to the Wilmington Design Review Board for review.
Feb. 22, 2018: The Wilmington Design Review Board writes that it has reviewed the Certificate of Appropriateness issued by the Hillsboro board, and “our board found no issues with the Certificate and affirms the City of Hillsboro’s Design Review Board decision.”
Feb. 27, 2018: Hastings writes a letter to McKenzie applying to take part in the city’s program to demolish blighted properties.
March 6, 2018: McKenzie forwards Hastings’ request to Beery, writing, “I would like to know if there are any legal conflicts to the Mayor participating in our demolition program.”
March 6, 2018: Beery replies, stating he is going to contact Anneka Collins, the Highland County prosecutor, saying she had looked into a similar issue “several years ago.”
March 6, 2018: Collins replies that she can’t recall what Beery is referencing. Beery replies to McKenzie that “Anneka knew of no problem with this demo permit,” a message that McKenzie relays to city council members and Lewis. Beery later tells The Times-Gazette that his email to McKenzie was poorly worded, and that the opinion approving Hastings’ participation was his, not Collins’.
March 7, 2018: Hastings submits two bids dated March 7 for demolition of the building, one for $48,000, the other for $33,100.
March 15, 2018: McKenzie again writes to Beery, saying, “It is understood that the Mayor will be receiving, as a Hillsboro property owner, the benefit of our Funding for Demolition Policy and there are no legal or ethical concerns, correct?”
March 15, 2018: Beery responds, “That is my opinion,” adding that there is no ethical problem because Hastings did not take part in determining his qualification, and “it is the same as the revolving loan fund issue in which the ethics commission pointed to a decision involving a county commissioner some years ago.” Beery adds, “Is there some reason that you are asking me again? Did I miss something?”
March 15, 2018: McKenzie responds, “No sir, no reason. I’m just covering all angles and did not want it to be construed as just a simple demo permit. I was clarifying for my own purposes.”
March 19, 2018: McKenzie approves a demolition permit, checking boxes on the form noting that Hastings paid a $50 permit fee and wrote a $500 check “to be held by the City, to guarantee completion of project.”
March 19, 2018: Hastings signs a document agreeing to a tax assessment on the property which notes that the city “will assess one hundred percent of the total cost of the demolition” to Hastings’ property taxes over a five-year period.
March 20, 2018: McKenzie submits the purchase order to Lewis for demolition of the Armintrout building. Later that evening, city council members engage in a round-robin series of phone calls on the rumor that Hastings has submitted a purchase order for the $33,100 cost of demolishing the Armintrout building. Some council members do not realize initially that the request was part of the demolition program and the money would be paid back through property taxes. They eventually learn that information from a conversation with Beery.
March 21, 2018: Lewis emails Beery, copying council members and McKenzie, writing, “I just received a message from Justin stating that the owner of the above-mentioned property will be assessed 100% of the cost on the property’s taxes.” He then references the sidewalk “debacle” of the previous year, cites the need for resolutions on necessity and assessments, and concludes, “Once again the ball has been dropped.”
March 21, 2018: McKenzie responds, saying the sidewalk procedure is spelled out in Ohio Revised Code, but demolition of property is not, adding, “After speaking with (county auditor) Bill Fawley, there is nothing new about this assessment. He has done them for the City for years on numerous occasions.” McKenzie adds, “If you would like an accurate account of the steps I took on this demo request, they are as follows,” and then enumerates eight bullet points. He concludes, “I do not care what situation it is, who it involves (regardless of last name or title), I will treat everyone fairly and by the letter of the law.”
March 23, 2018: Lewis sends an email to Eric Daniels, the city’s public records custodian, requesting 13 documents, mostly email correspondence, but also various applications and approvals and a “copy of any legislation submitted to and approved by Hillsboro City Council that establishes a ‘Demolition Program.’”
Earlier this week, Beery said the issue had become unnecessarily controversial.
“People just heard crazy stuff about it,” said Beery. “Turns out, there’s nothing much to it.”
Hastings and Lewis have butted heads often in recent years, dating back to late 2015 when Lewis made social media comments after Hastings was investigated, then indicted, and finally acquitted in late 2016 on various felony charges, and in January 2016 when Lewis said Hastings’ firing of an assistant law director four years earlier “may have been an unlawful act,” and last year when Hastings and others complained about the flow of information from Lewis’ office.
Hastings said earlier this week, “The reality is that this story only became the story that it started to be because our auditor, Mr. Lewis, went off half-cocked without doing his homework.”
Lewis said Wednesday by text, “I do have concerns. At this time, however, I do not have a comment.”
When The Times-Gazette called Lewis on Friday shortly after 2 p.m., a clerk said he was in a meeting and would call back, but he did not. Hastings said Friday he had no further comment.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456, or follow on Twitter @AbernathyGary.