ALLIANCE — A Stark County judge has ruled against city officials and ordered them to pay $26,313 in attorney fees stemming from a lawsuit over City Council’s violation of state open meetings law and the mishandling of public records.
This week’s decision from Common Pleas Court Judge Taryn Heath upholds a magistrate’s earlier ruling. It stems from an Alliance City Council session on April 3, 2017, and two closed-door executive sessions. City leaders, according to the lawsuit filed by Leslie J. Young, failed to properly state the reason for holding a meeting without the general public being present. That lawsuit was filed in 2017.
A subsequent lawsuit by Young filed in 2018 accused City Council Clerk Gerald Yost of improperly disposing of notes taken at the same council session. Alliance officials, in a consent agreement signed in August, acknowledged being at fault in both lawsuits. The lawsuits were combined.
“The city disagrees with Judge Heath’s decision to award the full attorney fee request,” Law Director Jennifer Arnold said in a written statement. “The city believes its actions were in accordance with the law, especially in light of a recent 5th District Court of Appeals decision. Alliance’s attorneys are determining whether or not to appeal this decision.”
Arnold said the city may rely on its insurance carrier for the court-ordered payment.
“We will have to discuss who is going to cover this,” she said.
Attorney Steven Okey filed the lawsuits in behalf of Young, a retired city firefighter. Okey is a former member of Alliance City Council who once ran against current Mayor Alan Andreani.
After the two sides reached a settlement in August, “they have been fighting the attorney’s request ever since,” Okey said. “The responsibility is with the city of Alliance for not settling this earlier. That is not free money. The taxpayer ultimately pays those attorney fees or the insurance that pays those fees.”
Judge Heath’s 14-page decision criticizes the way Alliance City Council conducted its affairs. Council motions to go into executive session did not contain specific enough language to meet the state requirement of explaining the need for going behind closed doors. The judge also mentions an incident where hand-written meeting minutes were destroyed.
Judge Heath’s wrote “false meeting minutes were created making it appear as if the appropriate language was used when it was not.”
Yost, the City Council clerk, according to the lawsuit, destroyed some meeting notes taken at that April 3, 2017, meeting. The notes were prepared by city Auditor Kevin Knowles because Yost was absent from the council session, and therefore could not record minutes. Knowles provided his notes to Yost.
“People need to know this is what their City Council did and the law director was part and parcel of it,” Okey said. “That is a huge deal. That is outrageous.”
Reach Malcolm at 330-580-8305 or email@example.com. On Twitter: mhallREP