Ethics question rears its head in Palestine

EAST PALESTINE – A group leasing proposal in East Palestine has been met with yet another roadblock, and this time ethics are under scrutiny.

Some village residents and a councilman agreed Monday night that a conflict of interest is in play regarding the leasing proposal suggested by Councilman Don Elzer.

The suggestion is to combine municipal property with residential property to offer to oil and gas companies in order to get a better deal. The village has been offering its roughly 140 acres of municipal property the last few years but has not received any lucrative lease offers.

Elzer believes combining the property will generate more interest from oil and gas companies, but Councilman Alan Cohen said the village is breaking the law by being involved.

West Martin Street resident Dot Herbert also questioned the ethics of moving forward with the suggestion.

“I think council has a responsibility, if not a moral obligation, to present more than one side of the picture. I would hope you would not be totally blinded by the dollar signs in your enthusiasm and consider the long-term consequences,” she said.

She went on to say all elected officials should disclose their land holdings – with the exception of their personal homes or those held by spouses for relatives-before voting on the matter, since they would benefit through the leasing.

“I believe this is a conflict of interest … it would be appropriate for them to remove themselves from the proceedings and abstain from voting,” she said.

The comment was met with applause from those seated in the public area.

Elzer, whose company EP Management LLC owns several properties in town, responded there was no conflict, but was interrupted by Cohen, who argued there was, and that he believed council had already broken state law by authorizing Village Manager Pete Monteleone at the last meeting to gather input from residents and seek out oil and gas companies that may be interested in leasing property.

He cited Ohio Revised Code 102.03 sections D and E, which state that a public official or employee is not allowed to use or authorize the use of the authority or influence of their office or employment to secure anything of value or the promise or offer of anything of value … to manifest a substantial and improper influence upon the public official or employee with respect to their duties, and they may not solicit or accept anything of value that could manifest a substantial and improper influence upon them.

“I think you think this is a substantial benefit to the village,” he said to Elzer, and then asked if he planned on leasing his own property.

“With or without this I’d like to sign a lease,” Elzer said, adding he would “take what he could get.”

“Now you’re talking about receiving $4,000 per acre for your property and you don’t see a conflict with that?” Cohen said, referring to the $4,000 figure Elzer included in an informational brochure passed around at the last meeting.

Elzer said at that time the estimate was based on other leases.

To Cohen he said he would not be the only one benefiting from the leasing, but Cohen argued Elzer would benefit more since he holds more property, and that is illegal.

“I’m concerned for you, I’m concerned with all of this, because it’s a criminal offense,” he said. “In order for it to be proper it has to be uniform benefit … not everybody owns property.”

The uniform benefit was determined by the Ohio Ethics Commission in regards to that section of the ORC law, he added.

When asked after the meeting Elzer confirmed he owns eight properties, including the former light plant, the PNC Bank drive-through, Skerball’s and the historic brick building downtown, as well as a few residential properties.

He said the properties combined make up about six acres.

Cohen said the only property he owns is his residential property.

“I don’t think we can do it, because every single council member owns property and the village manager owns property,” he said after the meeting.

Monteleone confirmed after the meeting he owns his personal property and the residential property of a relative.

Cohen said it is also illegal for him, according to ORC 102.03, to seek out oil and gas companies since he will also personally benefit from the leasing.

“I am not opposed to this being done in East Palestine, I’m just opposed to council doing it. If the Chamber of Commerce were doing this I’d say great. If a private company came in and started doing this, there is nothing to stop them from doing this,” he clarified.