EAST PALESTINE - The former husband and wife administrative team for the village are seeking unemployment compensation, according to a council member who brought up the matter during last week's council meeting.
Fran Figley said former village manager Gary Clark and his administrative assistant and clerk of council Cindy Clark have sought unemployment compensation twice, been denied twice, and have filed for a third time.
The Clarks, who both had more than 30 years' employment with the village, resigned in early April after questions were raised about their job performance. The Clarks said then the decision was based on how they were being treated by some on council and other village employees.
Figley said he believed council members had planned to discuss the Clarks in an executive session at an Aug. 3 special meeting at village Solicitor Shirley Smith's downtown office.
Councilman Don Elzer had requested the executive session during the Aug. 3 meeting but the session was never held since two councilmen were absent and Figley dissented. Although only a majority of a quorum is needed to pass according to state law, village charter requires four affirmative votes to enter into executive session. The charter takes precedence over the Ohio open meeting law.
At that time, Figley had wanted to explain his reasoning behind voting against the session but was hushed by Smith and some members of council, who said they are prohibited by law from discussing in public matters from an executive session, which is not true. The Ohio open meeting law does not prevent public officials from disclosing information discussed in executive session, provided no other legal prohibitions apply.
Figley has said he has grown uncomfortable with how some of the executive sessions are being conducted, and argued that point again at last week's meeting, prompting Smith to consult the open meeting law and read aloud from it regarding what constitutes a proper executive session.
A session can be held to discuss personnel aspects relating to hiring, firing, discipline, compensation, etc. of an employee, or investigation of charges or complaints against a public employee, unless the employee requests a public hearing. It can also be held to consider the purchase of property, pending or imminent litigation, and collective bargaining. It cannot be held to consider the discipline or removal of an elected official.
It was not immediately clear whether the Clarks are threatening litigation, as council members did not openly discuss the matter, and Figley and Elzer did not wish to elaborate after the meeting, but Figley stated once during the meeting that he believed the Aug. 3 executive session was to discuss the terms of a possible settlement with the former manager.
He also said he found Smith, Village Manager Pete Monteleone and two council members discussing in private what he believed was planned for the Aug. 3 executive session.
Smith admitted to speaking with the council members but did not state she was discussing what was planned for executive session.
"I don't believe that that's the case. Certain council members asked me questions. I have an open door policy at my office. You've asked me questions - you're always willing to do that. I think council knows that," she said.
She also said that she hushed him at the special meeting because she thought he was going to bring up something that was discussed in a previous executive session.
Figley argued that he doesn't believe the matter with the Clarks is something that warrants an executive session, and wondered why Smith is "running" council meetings.
Councilwoman Ellen Beagle interjected that she believed Smith "had determined those were legal matters."
"I probably would not agree with that but I didn't see the harm in that being a legal matter," she said.
She added that an executive session is a good place to discuss strategy with regards to negotiations, but agreed with Figley that the closed-door discussions are being held too often and for too many reasons.
She said that she has received numerous e-mails and other communication from residents who are not happy with how the meetings are being conducted.
"It sounds like we are all a bunch of politicians up here bickering instead of getting work done. I don't want to be that politician One of the things I'm very concerned about is the appearance our council is giving off to residents. Our executive sessions are excessive. I think we should be much more careful with making sure we obey these laws," she said.
Figley said every executive session held since he took council in January has been "improper," and was especially upset over a prior session in which Mayor Margo Zuch had read aloud from a letter submitted by a council member who could not attend.
"Do you think that's proper?" he asked Smith and Beagle, who both replied that it was not.
"That's why I don't like executive session, because we can all hide behind it," he said.
He also pointed out that state law calls for the executive sessions to be conducted with council members only, and that any others must be invited by council. The charter gives the manager the authority to sit in on the executive sessions, however.
On a related matter, council members unanimously approved appointing Misti Martin as full-time administrative assistant and clerk of council. Martin was appointed on an interim basis in April on a 90-day probationary term.
Martin has worked in the billing department for the water and sewer department since 1997 and has remained in that position while working on the interim basis.
Finance Director Traci Thompson said Martin will now take over the full-time responsibilities of the administrative position and leave her position with the water and sewer department. She will be making the same amount of money as Cindy Clark was when she left the position, which was $14.39 per hour.
Thompson said Martin was making 2.5 percent of Clark's rate when she was initially appointed in April. She added that Martin has surpassed the 90-day probationary period by 30 days and requested the full-time status be retroactive to July, which council approved.