COLUMBIANA - Three people on council and Mayor David Spatholt are seeking a court order to find out what issue a taxpayer is having with the city's income tax code.
Council members were informed at the Sept. 18 meeting a taxpayer had formally filed a complaint about the tax code and Municipal Attorney Daniel Blasdell said three people would need to be appointed by council to serve on an income tax board of review.
The city has 45 days from the date of the complaint to appoint members and conduct a private hearing. Blasdell said the complaint was filed on Sept. 17 and explained that the review board already exists under the city's tax law adopted in 1973 but there are no members currently because the board has never been needed before since a complaint had never been filed.
On Sept. 18 Blasdell and City Manager Keith Chamberlin told council they could not discuss publicly what the complaint was as all income tax matters are required by law to be kept confidential. But three members of council and Spatholt believe they need to know in order to appoint the proper people to the board.
Councilman Bryan Blakeman was especially upset over the lack of information and accused Blasdell and Chamberlin of "hiding something." Several times during the meeting he referenced the city's charter and the tax code and argued that council has the right to know since the matter falls under official public business.
He also argued section 7.05 of the charter states the manager must make any reports or information available to council that council has requested.
"It doesn't say, 'except tax issues'," he noted.
He then said that after the Sept. 18 meeting he told Councilman Bob Bieshelt, who also wanted to know the issue, to approach Chamberlin privately and find out, but Chamberlin still refused to disclose the information.
Blakeman said that Chamberlin told Bieshelt council members have "zero reason to be involved in this" and don't "have a right to know."
When he learned that Bieshelt was not told, he then attempted to contact Chamberlin for himself, and was also not given the information but was referred to Blasdell, who again would not disclose the issue, citing that doing so would be a violation of law.
He stressed during the meeting that he has not sought to know the identity of the individual but only what their issue is. Chamberlin and Blasdell argued that disclosing the issue could in turn reveal the person's identity.
"I ask you again to please simply give background information on the tax issue that is requiring this panel to be formed. How can we possibly make an intelligent vote on the correct people to appoint if we don't already know what the issue is?" Blakeman said.
He also said council should know since they are voting on legislation that pertains to spending money and income taxes are a part of that spending.
"For all I know we have someone challenging a million-dollar tax," he said. "We are public officials, and we are asking a question regarding official public business, and the city manager and city attorney are refusing to tell us."
"I have a duty not to disclose it to you. I think you have a duty to appoint a board without compromising my duty," Blasdell said, and then suggested they appoint people to the board they know have experience with tax matters.
He also said that he didn't believe Blakeman was "right" in his argument and was not interpreting the charter properly.
Bieshelt then asked Blasdell and Chamberlin how many other people know the issue while council is kept in the dark.
"I understand our finance director knows about this issue. That troubles me greatly based on what you say," he said to Blasdell. "You say you can't divulge this information but the finance director knows. I bet the income tax department knows."
Blasdell replied that the department is aware.
Bieshelt said that he was first told that the complaint was sent in the form of a letter to Chamberlin, not everyone else.
"How do these other people know and why do they know?" he asked.
Blasdell didn't offer a specific answer, but only said, "You don't have the right to go in and look at my tax return."
Blakeman then made a motion to hire an attorney to obtain a writ of mandamus in the county Common Pleas Court. He explained that doing so would allow the attorney to go to court on their behalf and ask the judge to require Chamberlin or Finance Director Mike Harold to disclose the issue.
Bieshelt and Councilman James King approved the motion, but Councilmen Tom Ferguson, Lowell Schloneger and Councilwoman Mary Calinger opposed. Spatholt broke the tie by voting in favor.
Spatholt and the others in favor said they wished to "set a precedence" that the city manager and municipal attorney could not keep information from council.
Schloneger said he didn't approve for three reasons. "First it goes against our code, second it goes against the ethics they (council) should have, and third it should go against their morals."
He reminded council that a few years ago when the city's income tax was proposed a local factory owner came out against it but later changed his mind after it was explained to him.
"He was for the tax, but what he was worried about was that council or someone else" would have his report available to them, he said. "We now have some council persons that are seeking to have a person's tax report problem made available to them I will keep tonight's agenda and the minutes from this meeting available until the next election."
He explained that voters will interpret Blakeman's suggestion as an attempt to look at their income tax report.
"It should look good on a campaign sign. 'Vote for me and I will try to look at your city income tax report,'" he said.
But Blakeman again argued he is not seeking to look at the report, only to know what the particular issue is that will be addressed privately.
"That's a lie. I'm not looking for anyone's income tax returns," he said.
The attorney hired will be paid for by the city, which Blakeman estimated would cost a minimal amount.
Blasdell said they have a right to pursue a writ of mandamus but didn't believe they had the time. He then suggested they at least appoint the review board to make sure the deadline doesn't pass. If the board is not formed in time the favor will by default fall to the taxpayer, he explained.
He also cautioned council members shouldn't appoint people to the board who are already on council as it may be perceived as being impartial, but the suggestion wasn't followed as Bieshelt was then appointed to the board by a 4-2 vote. Councilmen Tom Ferguson and Schloneger opposed.
John Haller and Rick Firestone were also appointed to the board and council also approved imposing a temporary term limit for this particular case.
Once the hearing is held, the taxpayer may file an appeal of the decision if they should so choose, and at that time the case would likely become public as it would then go through the Common Pleas Court and those records are open to the public, Blasdell pointed out.