Hillsboro City Auditor Gary Lewis on Wednesday morning again sent an email to city officials, copying The Times-Gazette, addressing questions raised in the newspaper’s latest story on his decision to hold up approval of a purchase order for the demolition of a building owned by Mayor Drew Hastings, and defending his approval of other purchase orders for similar demolition projects.
Meanwhile, the city law director, Fred Beery, said Wednesday that the “potshots” being taken on the subject “are not in the city’s best interests,” and “could cost the taxpayers more money.” Beery said legal questions from officeholders should be directed to him.
“Anything specific, they need to ask their lawyer – me,” said Beery.
But on Wednesday, asked if he had confidence in Beery’s legal advice, Lewis said, “No, I don’t. I have to be honest.”
Beery responded, referencing Lewis’ apparent differences with Hastings, Safety and Service Director Mel McKenzie and council President Lee Koogler, who said last week that Hastings should be treated like every other citizen.
“There’s not a lot I can say to that,” said Beery. “He doesn’t have confidence in me. He doesn’t have confidence in the mayor. He doesn’t have confidence in Mel. He doesn’t have confidence in Lee. There’s not much more I can say.”
The issue revolves around an application by Hastings to participate in the city’s demolition assistance program, in which the city fronts the cost of demolishing a structure, and then recoups its costs through five years of property tax assessments.
Earlier this month, Beery gave his approval for Hastings to participate in the program, but Lewis has refused to issue a purchase order for the work. Instead, Lewis has sent a series of emails to city officials this week and appears to be relying on direction from an outside attorney.
In his latest email Wednesday, Lewis acknowledges approving purchase orders on demolition work similar to the one he is refusing to issue for the “Armintrout building” on Gov. Trimble owned by Hastings. He then references an email exchange he had on October 12, 2017, with Brenda Wehmer, who serves as bond counsel for the city, and says, “It was not until 10/12/17 that I learned through this discussion that Council must approve special assessments.”
But Lewis approved a purchase order nearly a month later, on Nov. 9, for a demolition project at 110 S. High St., according to records provided by McKenzie.
Lewis references that property in his Wednesday email, saying, “I held that purchase order up last year because of concerns that Mr. Beery had about it a couple years prior when the Administration wanted to have the back portion of that building demolished. I believe it was determined then that the building was structurally sound and did not qualify as a blighted property. I also had the same concerns about Council approval that I have with the Gov Trimble property. When I asked Mr. McKenzie about that demolition earlier this year, he had little to say about it other than he was working on it. I assumed ‘working on it’ meant following the proper procedures that would include a resolution to Council for approval.”
But McKenzie said this week that not only did Lewis approve the purchase order, the work has been completed and the final invoice was submitted to Lewis’ office this week.
In an interview Wednesday, Lewis acknowledged approving that purchase order Nov. 9 even after being advised by Wehmer that council approval was needed for assessments, but said he intended that it be held after another conversation with Beery, adding, “It sat on my desk until January.” But he said he will pay the invoice since the work has already been completed. He said that when he approved it, he may not have understood exactly what it was for.
“I guess I gave (McKenzie) the benefit of the doubt,” said Lewis.
Lewis said that the demolition of the structure, which was adjacent to the old Fifth-Third bank building now owned by Hastings, had been questioned by Beery and held up until the city’s former code enforcement officer was urged by Hastings to pursue it.
In his Wednesday email, after referencing the Oct. 12 exchange with Wehmer, the bond attorney, Lewis adds, “I’m sure no one thinks that, once discovered, continuing to follow improper procedures is the correct way to proceed. That is why I suggested to Mr. McKenzie late last year that we need to have Council approval for any assessment. I do not know if he thought that I was speaking only about sidewalks, but I was speaking about any assessment. That was the practice during previous administrations.”
Lewis concludes his latest email, “Regarding the above three demolitions as well as all assessments made on properties from 2012 to the present, based on the comments from our bond council (sic) they are subject to challenge. Does anybody find fault with me for trying to limit our losses in these situations? If so, let me know.”
Beery said Wednesday that while he could not make a blanket comment on all the assessments referenced by Lewis, he would not allow the auditor to issue purchase orders or payments that were not appropriate.
“Having said that, they need to come to me with specific questions when they need input,” said Beery. “I’m not the auditor or the safety-service director. I don’t want to be the auditor or the safety-service director.”
Beery said the pattern of daily emails discussing legal issues “is not appropriate.”
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456, or follow on Twitter @AbernathyGary.