Highland County Probate and Juvenile Judge Kevin Greer told attorneys Wednesday he is “leaning” toward ruling that the civil case against Hillsboro Mayor Drew Hastings is moot, based on case law and the timing of the lawsuit against the mayor.
Greer scheduled another pre-trial for Jan. 4 to rule on the mootness question. The civil case is separate from an ongoing criminal investigation under way involving the mayor.
Greer said that in researching the case, a precedent was set about 45 years ago in “Stokes v. Probate Court,” which he said remains relevant law.
In that case, former Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes was the subject of a similar civil complaint filed by five Cleveland residents seeking to remove him from office for malfeasance, for withdrawing white police officers from the scene of 1968 rioting.
But in May 1970, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that Stokes, then in his second term, “could not be removed from office for any malfeasance that may have occurred in his first term,” according to an archived Associated Press report.
The court said that Ohio law does not authorize a public official’s removal for any misconduct “occurring in a term prior to re-election,” according to the AP story.
Hastings was re-elected in November to a second term, which begins Jan. 1, 2016. So even if a trial was set before then and he was found guilty and removed, he could be sworn in and begin serving again as mayor for his second term, under the Stokes ruling.
Setting a trial after Jan. 1 would make the issue a moot point, since Hastings would already be serving his second term and therefore not subject to removal for any acts that may have occurred during his first term, under the precedent set in the Stokes case as decided by the state’s high court.
Greer said, “It appears to me the mootness issue is where this court is leaning.” But he asked both attorneys to file briefs making their arguments, and asked them to have those arguments to him by next Wednesday in preparation for the Jan. 4 follow-up hearing to make a final ruling on the subject.
Hillsboro Law Director Fred Beery, who by statute must prosecute the civil case, told Greer that he believes there could be some “carryover” issues that might permit the case to move forward.
But Hastings’ attorney, James Boulger of Chillicothe, told the court he agreed with its interpretation of precedent, since the city of Hillsboro has a definite term of office “determined by ordinance.” He said Hastings’ current term ends Dec. 31, and he will start a new term on Jan. 1. He said the allegations in the civil suit are “discreet” to the mayor’s first term.
Ohio Revised Code orders a civil proceeding such as the one filed against Hastings to be handled by the local probate court.
Greer also disclosed to attorneys that his wife has worked with Pam Limes, the mayor’s opponent in the November election, as a volunteer at Highland District Hospital, and that she had made a “small contribution” to the Limes campaign. He said that Limes had also worked briefly about 30 years ago for Coss & Greer, a former private law practice in which Greer partnered with Rocky Coss, who is now the local common pleas judge.
Greer said he did not believe those issues rise to the level of requiring him to recuse himself from the case, but he invited attorneys to file briefs on the issue if they disagreed.
The civil suit filed against Hastings, signed by Craig Jackson, Ariana Jackson, Kirby Ellison, Lisa Leeth and Betty Bishop, centers on a $500 refund Hastings received from a vacant property fee he had paid for a building he owns on North High Street.
But Todd Wilkin, the city safety and service director, told law enforcement officials that he had not stamped the letter authorizing the refund, nor authorized his stamped signature to be affixed to the document as appears was done, according to an affidavit. Wilkin was at the courthouse on Wednesday, as was Gary Lewis, the city auditor, but neither entered the courtroom. A handful of spectators were on hand Wednesday in the small juvenile and probate courtroom on the first floor of the Highland County Courthouse, including petitioners Craig and Ariana Jackson.
The issue of the $500 refund, along with claims that Hastings has used a city dumpster to dispose of refuse from personal properties, remains under investigation for possible criminal charges. A search warrant related to those issues was issued last Wednesday, and Highland County Sheriff’s Office deputies collected documents, emails and photocopies from the city building that night.
The outcome of the civil case has no bearing on the separate criminal investigation and charges that may arise from it. Anneka Collins, the Highland County prosecutor, said last week that if law enforcement turns over evidence from its investigation of the mayor to her office, it will likely be at least until February before the case is presented to a grand jury.
Hastings was out of town visiting family on Wednesday, but his attorney, Boulger, said after the hearing that in regard to the allegations surrounding the refund check and the city dumpster, the mayor ultimately “wants to resolve these things on their merits, rather than technical questions.”
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.