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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

"The Email Conspiracy": Latest Episode of Portsmouth City Council at War

We have grown to love that zany crew. Good old Portsmouth City Council: it's always good for more laughs than an episode of the Andy Griffith Show dealing with the fictional politics in Mayberry. Our cast of Portsmouth characters is now fighting about email. They are involved in a riveting, modern drama pitting the privacy of personal, instant electronic mail against the government's interest in preventing sabotage and collusion.

The plot is skillfully wrought with intrigue, politics, and personal gain. The theme is a well-used combination of motifs -- "Button, button, who's got the button?" and "What, me worry?" The mood is tense and filled with comic relief. Who knew email could build such insightful messages about local politics.

Oh, friends, it's a complicated story with many twists and turns that pits proponents of partisan politics through email messaging against minority factions bent on doing things "the old way." The cast of characters includes many seasoned veterans of past City Council fracases who turn in predictable, but spirited performances. The development is stunningly complicated by the actors who drive the rising action to a fitting climax of discontent and "business as usual."

I will try to relate the story, but, as usual, the politics and the hyperbole makes fact-finding difficult.  I must credit the Portsmouth Daily Times with two reports that allow me to interpret the action. Read them for yourself here: (1) Council members discuss legislation in emails. (2) Solicitor and city manager go on offensive on issue of emails.

You know Council -- they just love to scrap over personal matters more than Ernest T. Bass, the obstreperous, rock-throwing, mountain man on the Griffith show. I can hear him now with his usual greeting that foreshadowed impending trouble: "Howdy do to you and you. It's me, it's me, it's Ernest T.!" This invariably means trouble for Sheriff Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife. And, it seems there is trouble with a capital "T" brewing right here in River City.

I will skip the exposition -- the background of setting, character, and past conflict -- to devote this blog entry to the latest episode of Portsmouth City Council at War fittingly titled "The Email Conspiracy."

"The Email Conspiracy"

1.  This conflict begins with political emails about changing the positions of City Solicitor and City Auditor and about an election dealing with a charter amendment rescinding Sections 87 and 89.

"Portsmouth Mayor (Sixth Ward Councilman) Steve Sturgill and Vice-Mayor (First Ward Councilman) Kevin W. Johnson exchanged a series of emails (at least two, and possibly three) discussing changing the positions of city solicitor (City Attorney) and city auditor (City Treasurer) from elected to hired by city council and a charter amendment rescinding Sections 87 and 89 which deal with the staffing levels in the police department and the fire department respectively.

"Placing the two Charter amendments before city voters in November, essentially, if passed, would remove election by the voters for the positions of City Solicitor and City Auditor from the Charter, and change those titles to City Attorney and City Treasurer, respectively.

"In addition, Charter amendments would be proposed to remove the staffing levels of the Portsmouth Police Department and the Portsmouth Fire Department. The staffing levels, by city voters, are currently set at 44 each for a total of 88 employees in the two departments."

2. The emails were discovered by the IAFF (International Association of Fire Fighters) Local 512.

"The emails came to light when Tony Hamilton, president of IAFF (International Association of Fire Fighters) Local 512, made a Freedom of Information request through the office of City Clerk Diana Ratliff and the Daily Times made a similar request for the same information. Ratliff provided the emails to the Times."

3. The emails deal with Good Old Boy political finagling and in-fighting: the Triumvirate of Kevin W. Johnson, Gene Meadows, Steve Sturgill, tag-teaming against the duo of Jim Kalb and Rich Saddler (Whose inclusion is debated.)

"The e-mails content included communication about attempting to keep Fourth Ward Councilman Jim Kalb out of the discussion until the 'last minute,' but to attempt to involve Fifth Ward Council Gene Meadows for help in legal wording since Meadows is an attorney.

"In an email to Sturgill and Meadows dated 5:56 p.m. April 12, 2014, under the topic 'Council,' Johnson writes: '(Third Ward Councilman) Kevin E. Johnson is on the fence. Could one of you talk with him? Steve, you are talking with Jim Kalb; please let us know how that goes. Otherwise, we have four (4) firm votes; we three and Rich Saddler (per Steve earlier). A problem could occur should we not have more than four as I shall be in (redacted for privacy purposes)…'”

4. Johnson says the intention of organizing the e-mail Council support is to "not surprise unions" -- specifically AFSCME, FOP and IAFF, so the amendments appear to be for the good of city management and for the benefit of the budget.

"Then under the topic 'Unions,' Johnson writes - 'Good politics suggests that one should never ‘surprise’ unions; anymore than we enjoy being ‘surprised.’ In the second week of May one or more of us should talk with (Fire) Chief (Bill) Raison, (Police) Chief (Robert) Ware and the presidents of AFSCME, FOP and IAFF. The purpose is to emphasize that these amendments are being proposed in order to bring sense to our budget, ensure we are not placed in Fiscal Emergency and fiscally taken over by the State Auditor’s office (and these people know what Scioto County went through), and to consolidate management operational responsibility and accountability.'"

5. Johnson, it seems on his own, has already secured a treasurer for the campaign and fund raising in support of the amendments.

"Johnson goes on to say he has secured a treasurer for 'whatever campaign committee is established.' The email goes on to say that the person is on board for fund raising. He says his goal is to raise between $8,000 and $10,000."

6. Kalb claims he's been kept in the dark about all the changes, and he believes his opinion doesn't matter because the email content is a "done deal" without proper discussion in Council sessions.

"On April 22 Sturgill sends Kalb an email asking for his thoughts on the proposal.

“'At this point it appears that my thoughts don’t matter much anyway as preliminary legislation has already been prepared, without my input,' Kalb responded. 'I always thought that it was ‘discussion’ first, then ‘action’ taken on the results of the discussion.'”

7. The inquisitive Kalb emails Sadler to inquire whether Sadler knew anything about the plans for the election.

"Within minutes, Kalb sends an email to Second Ward Councilman Rich Saddler - 'I was wondering if you were aware of these plans being laid out by three Council members for the November election. Call me if you have questions or some answers.'”

8. Sadler denies any knowledge of the four-person block for power (that Johnson says included him) and claims "everything seems to be a big secret" when it comes to Council and sharing ideas.

“'Hmmm nope! Steve did ask me once after a meeting what I thought about putting the auditor and solicitor under Derek, about two months ago. I told him Council would need to discuss it but I wouldn’t be totally against it. This conversation took about 2 minutes but that is all I’ve been privy to,' Saddler responded."

“'I don’t hear anything from anybody anymore, except you. Hell, Derek won’t even reply to an email when I’ve had a complaint about a water leak last week. I’m to the point I’m just doing my thing and the hell with the rest of it. When I first got on Council we all shared ideas and information. It’s not that way now, everything seems to be a big secret.'”

9. Fast forward to the next Council Meeting. City Solicitor John Haas claims he can't represent Council in an attempt to "do away" with his own office.

"Portsmouth City Solicitor John Haas says he cannot represent Portsmouth City Council when it comes to public records requests in the future. He says, 'Council has placed my office in an untenable position. I cannot assist council on public records requests because the subject of the requests deals with an attempt to do away with my office and place the city’s legal counsel under the control and power of city council.'"

10. Haas accuses several members of Council of acting criminally with their many email correspondences: violating Ohio Open Meetings Act, the destruction of public records in violation of Ohio’s Sunshine Laws, the refusal to comply with a Public Records Request, and violating the city charter.

Haas comments to Council:

“'As the solicitor for the city of Portsmouth, I believe it’s my obligation to represent the interests of the citizens of Portsmouth first and foremost,' Haas said. 'Normally that’s my obligation, and my obligation to advise city council align and aren’t the source of any consternation on my part. However, I will say that the recent actions by several members of Portsmouth City council in holding meetings in violation of the Ohio Open Meetings Act, the destruction of public records in violation of Ohio’s Sunshine Laws, the refusal to comply with a Public Records Request, violated the charter by meeting with department heads and employees, in some instances without the knowledge of the city manager and in other instances in direct conflict with requests by the city manager not to do so, has created a situation and I have witnessed the destruction of the city manager’s credibility within the ranks of the city employees.'”

11. In one of his lighter comments, as if mistrust has ever gone away, Haas also charges that the clandestine emails have "renewed" a lack of trust in Council and "hampered day-to-day management of the city."

"'Haas said further that he believes the circulation of emails that were passed back and forth between members of council has renewed a lack of trust of city council, which he said he believed, prior to the action, was 'on the mend.' Haas said what he termed 'the secret actions of Council' that came to light in the 100-plus pages of emails provided thus far in response to the public records requests have accomplished two major points. Haas said it is his opinion city council has hampered the day-to-day management of the city.

"Both Second Ward Councilman Rich Saddler and Third Ward Councilman Kevin E. Johnson offered a vote of confidence for the job Allen has done since coming on board four months ago."

12. In the madness, confusion, and back-biting, Sturgill and Kevin W. Johnson choose to remain stone faced and silent.

"Sturgill and Kevin W. Johnson made no comments on the topic during the meeting."

There you have it, folks. The latest episode of Portsmouth City Council at War. This email fracas is not over, I can assure you. Perhaps damning phone calls and text messages are the next revelations to hit the floor of city hall. This controversy promises to provide an intriguing series of new episodes sure to distract attention from the real business of the elected officials. But, this new controversy is sure to wag tongues and draw lines of contention -- the kind of stuff we all have come to love in P Town. I wonder how Sheriff Andy Taylor would fix all of this?

P.S. -- Don't ask me for any verification of the reports in this blog. I know nothing but an outsider's view based on scant research Still, I do continue to rejoice that I know my weekly trash collection day is Wednesday. Emails, amendments, and position changes interest me about as much as attending a session of City Council. If you have never been, try attending one. Does "cut and dried" apply to more than pressed flowers? Sorry for the lapse of reason... oh, hell... no, I'm not.

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