After weeks of refusing to do so, Hillsboro City Auditor Gary Lewis on Thursday approved a purchase order to demolish a building owned by Mayor Drew Hastings, telling city council members in an emailed letter, “I can walk away from this situation with a clear conscience having raised concerns about the law not being property followed.”
In his letter, Lewis — who said recently that he has no confidence in the legal advice of Law Director Fred Beery — offered legal advice to council members, urging them to act on his recommendations. But Beery said Thursday that Lewis is wrong, and council does not need to act.
Lewis began his letter, “By the time you read this, a purchase order for the demolition of the building at 120 Governor Trimble Place will have been assigned.”
Lewis added that he met last week with council President Lee Koogler to express his opinion that legislative action was needed from council. “This need is clearly defined in the statutory laws of this state,” Lewis wrote.
Lewis said Koogler agreed to speak with the law director and ask for a resolution of necessity, but Lewis wrote, “What was drafted was anything but a resolution of necessity.”
Lewis wrote, “Clearly, there is not going to be a resolution of necessity that states why it is necessary to demolish this building. I do not want Council to vote on something that would make them complicit in this affair. I would rather have responsibility for this affair lay squarely on the shoulders of those who have brought it to fruition.”
He added, “Council has a lot of work to do to clean up this mess,” followed by Lewis advising council members about what they should do on the subject of assessments, the adoption of a “Service Administration” program, the need for a city ordinance defining blight, and an admonition to council to “acquaint yourself with an ordinance that actually is in our code of ordinances, 2010-07,” which addresses dangerous properties and their inspection, repair or removal.
“You can determine for yourself what parts, if any, were followed in this case,” Lewis wrote. He concluded, “That is all I have to say regarding this matter.”
But Beery said Thursday that Lewis is wrong, and council does not need to take action in regard to assessments on blighted properties that the city demolishes. He said his position is “borne out by us being audited every two years, and it’s never been an issue.”
Safety and Service Director Mel McKenzie on Thursday provided The Times-Gazette with an email from Beery sent April 3 which clarified that council would become involved only if a property owner challenged an assessment by the safety-service director.
Beery wrote that under city code, “The property owner can appeal to council to challenge the determination of the SSD. That gives the SSD permission and authority to act without council.”
Prior to The Times-Gazette obtaining a copy of Lewis’ email, Justin Harsha, the council president pro tem, was the first to confirm Thursday that Lewis had approved the purchase order.
“He just came to me and said he decided to approve it,” said Harsha. “He said he didn’t want to put council through it.” Harsha said Lewis said he wants to make sure the assessment process is handled properly.
“I do, too,” said Harsha. “I’ll keep an eye on this.”
Lewis’ decision to authorize the purchase order came after it was initially submitted March 20 by McKenzie, after McKenzie had consulted multiple times with Beery to make sure it was legally and ethically permissible.
Beery assured him it was, since Hastings had no part in the approval process and was able to access programs available to other citizens. Lewis had previously approved similar demolition orders.
Under the city’s demolition assistance program, designed to tackle blighted properties, the city fronts the cost of demolition, and then notifies the county auditor’s office to add an assessment onto property taxes to repay the city.
Koogler said recently of Hastings’ participation in the program, “If he is treated like every other citizen, he should be afforded the same opportunity through the city.”
But Lewis refused to approve McKenzie’s purchase order for the Hastings building, citing concerns over the assessment process, the fact that Hastings is mayor, and eventually saying he had no confidence in Beery’s legal opinion. Instead, Lewis began consulting with Cincinnati-based bond attorney Brenda Wehmer.
In one email, Lewis insisted that his actions were not based on personal animosity against Hastings, writing, “I want to assure everyone that I am not ‘out to get the mayor’” although “It’s no secret that we don’t like each other. In the best of times we were only able to acknowledge each other’s existence…”
Hastings eventually threatened a mandamus action which, if granted by a court, forces a public official to carry out his or her duties. Beery used the specter of mandamus in 2011 to convince Lewis to approve a purchase order for firefighter clothing submitted by then-Safety and Service Director Ralph Holt after Lewis sent an email saying, “Nearly $2,000 for part-timers? I don’t think that’s called for. I’m not approving that.”
In the case of Hastings’ building, Lewis had said in emails that he had also consulted with the Ohio Ethics Commission and the office of state Auditor Dave Yost, but in Thursday’s email he did not mention any responses he had received from those agencies.
Hastings said Thursday that having the demolition purchase order approved will preclude the need to follow through with a mandamus action against Lewis.
“This whole thing should never have involved him, and yet it turned out to be all about him,” said Hastings. He added, “I’m glad I now have an attorney on speed dial.”
A call to Lewis’s cell phone went directly to a voicemail system which has not been set up, according to an automated message.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456, or follow on Twitter @AbernathyGary.