Washington C.H. City Manager Joe Denen will not face obstructing official business and dereliction of duty charges — as requested by city council member Caleb Johnson at the contentious April 11 council meeting — because “there’s just nothing there,” according to city attorney Mark Pitstick.
In reviewing email correspondence between Johnson and Denen between Feb. 25 and April 11 provided to the Record-Herald, Johnson claims Denen failed to provide documents he requested — including an electric copy of an “animal review board ordinance draft” and “charter investigation rules.” Johnson also expressed concern that Denen was not sufficiently responding to public records requests made by local citizen, Derek Myers.
In an email that was sent by Johnson to Pitstick the morning of April 11 prior to the council meeting, Johnson wrote: “I have been refused a request for documents by Joe (Denen), who is bound by the City Charter under Article 4, Section 14 to provide documents. I have been intentionally obstructed in my capacity as a public official, as well as personally insulted in a series of emails. In order to uphold my oath to the people of Washington Court House, I am left with no alternative. In my capacity as one of the seven duly elected to Council, I respectfully convey to you the request I made to Joe Denen earlier for documents of which I was unlawfully denied; please ensure that this request is fulfilled.”
Johnson then made his request that Denen be charged with obstruction of official business and dereliction of duty.
During an interview last week with Denen and Pitstick, the city attorney said in his opinion, the city manager did not act inappropriately and that Johnson’s requests were handled appropriately.
“First of all, as far as the recommendation of charges, it has to go in front of council as a whole,” said Pitstick. “Council would have to make the decision as to what direction they would want. I don’t know any specific criminal charges that would apply to the city manager anyway. The council acts as a whole, not as an individual. Now, of course, the council has the right to remove Mr. Denen, has the right to remove me or the finance director for that matter. We work at their pleasure.”
The city council itself has also decided not to consider Johnson’s recommendation any further. During Wednesday’s regular council meeting, council member Dale Lynch gave a report on what occurred at Monday’s city finance & personnel committee meeting.
“The committee discussed council member Caleb Johnson’s request that obstruction of justice and dereliction of duty charges be filed against Joe Denen, city manager,” said Lynch. “The committee concluded that nothing concerning charges should appear on the agenda of city council. Mr. Johnson was specifically asked by Mr. Denen if he desired legislation to be seen on council’s agenda….and Mr. Johnson responded in the negative.”
As for the specific charges of obstructing official business and dereliction of duty, Pitstick said during his interview with the Record-Herald that those charges do not apply to this set of circumstances.
“Obstructing official business is ordinarily when a criminal takes and fails to comply with a direct order of a police officer…then he or she may be obstructing official business under the circumstance, which isn’t the case in regard to this because there is no criminal activity. The police aren’t involved, nothing has happened. And dereliction of duty basically means somebody didn’t do what they were supposed to do and had an absolute responsibility to do so. Again, that doesn’t apply under the circumstance. There’s just nothing there.”
Pitstick also said he believes the city did not violate Ohio’s public records and open meetings laws, collectively known as the “Sunshine Laws.”
“The Sunshine rules require that we fulfill them within a reasonable period of time,” Pitstick said. “Given the workload of Mr. Denen and the police department, I don’t think a week or 10 days was out of the ordinary.
Denen said during the interview that the situation has become a bit vexing to him personally, as well as counterproductive to the city’s business.
“Sometimes it’s a bit frustrating,” Denen said. “I’m used to a situation where we carefully observe at a council meeting the respect for the office that a council member holds. It’s not normally a relationship where either side of the equation orders each other about. It’s more like you arrive at a consensus. I have to serve the institution of council and that has to be more important than individual members.”
Denen said he did provide the documents Johnson requested on April 11.
“I think it’s important to note that I didn’t do that in response to Caleb’s threat to have me charged because I had already undertaken that action,” Denen said. “The sad thing about this is I don’t see where we’ve accomplished anything constructive out of this whole mess. It’s not something I have a tremendous amount of interest in continuing to pursue. After the council meeting (April 11), I made a point of telling Caleb that I didn’t hate him. I didn’t agree with his characterization of me and I didn’t appreciate anything that he did. How an elected official does his or her job, that’s the business of the elected official. It’s not my place to comment on that. But it’s a different way of being a council member than I’ve seen in the past.”
The characterization Denen referred to was a comment made by Johnson to the Record-Herald following the April 11 meeting, when he said, “Unfortunately, the city manager has acted in a way closer resembling a dictator than a public servant.”
Also as previously reported, when Johnson attempted to address council and the public April 11 concerning his list of grievances during the miscellaneous portion of the meeting, council chairman Jim Chrisman repeatedly told him to stop speaking. Pitstick said Chrisman did nothing out of line.
“The open meetings act specifically states that you have to have an agenda, and the purpose of the agenda is to notify the public as to what subject matters are going to be discussed at a specific meeting which has a specific time and place,” Pitstick said. “If it isn’t on the agenda, then it’s something that cannot be discussed, or in fact you’re in violation. You can’t violate the open meetings act by discussing something that clearly wasn’t on the agenda. We have no way of knowing the extent of the subject matter. No one was given any information about what was going to be discussed prior to the meeting.”
When asked recently if he would still like to see charges brought against Denen, Johnson said, “I don’t know. If I felt that there was some sort of remorse for what had happened and (council) understood the problem so it wouldn’t happen again, then this is a totally different conversation.”
Johnson said transparency in government has always been of utmost importance to him, which is why he confronted the city manager.
“My goal is to bring transparency,” he said. “I want people to feel comfortable coming to council members and saying, ‘Look, I have a problem. Can you help me fix it?’ So yes, I want to have a government that is responsive and reaches out, and lets people know that it’s on their side. I’m not at all saying that my colleagues aren’t willing to do that, but it’s really important. The problem I have with Joe (Denen) right now is that he refused my requests. If Joe needs more time with something, just let me know you need more time. If you need a little bit more from me, let me know you need a little bit more.”
Johnson added that he would also like to get on with the city’s business, and that he’s received a lot of support from the community during this time.
Near the end of Wednesday’s council meeting when all council members had the opportunity to make brief miscellaneous comments, Johnson said: “Whenever I look to my left and my right on this council, I know we don’t always agree on every little thing. And I want to say that I still want to get along with all of you. I do have, again, a deep respect for everyone to my left and my right. I think the wonderful opportunity we have up here in those decisions that we end up making as a body of seven individuals end up being filtered through, sometimes, our disagreements. I think the city’s better for it.”
Reach Ryan Carter at 740-313-0352 or on Twitter @rywica