From The Delaware Gazette:
Rescinded county contract has yearlong fallout
Thursday, December 31, 2009
The appointment of former county auditor Todd Hanks in mid-January of this year marked a bonafide rarity in Ohio government: three new county commissioners.
The new Delaware County commissioners began the year on good terms, making good on campaign promises such as getting the ball rolling on better utilizing space in the county’s administrative building, finishing the county jail’s second floor and resuming Internet streaming of commissioners sessions.
However, as the year comes to an end, the commissioners remain in a stalemate over commissioner Tommy Thompson’s effort to institute a state-run conflict resolution program to address interpersonal problems that have emerged.
Commissioner Ken O’Brien said he does not think the program would help, and would be a waste of tax-funded resources. Thompson and Hanks, who often vote opposite of O’Brien, have expressed frustration that O’Brien is holding the process up.
The commissioners disagreed on some issues over the course of the year, but none proved to be as divisive as Thompson and Hanks’ attempt to award a $3.13 million contract to a newly-formed consulting company to convert septic waste into energy.
On June 18, the two nearly voted to approve the no-bid contract at the end of a commissioners session following a lengthy closed-door executive session. However, they decided to delay a vote after O’Brien loudly protested the vote had not been advertised to the public ahead of time. He also said he had not seen the contract until an hour before the meeting — commissioners had only discussed the topic once before in another closed-door executive session, he said.
Following an unruly four-hour June 22 meeting where several members of the public spoke, Hanks and Thompson approved the contract, even though county auditor George Kaitsa said the county didn’t have the money to pay for it, and county prosecutor Dave Yost recommended against it.
Officials with Dublin-based ST eGE said a waste-to-energy facility could generate $100 million in annual revenues for the county and create thousands of jobs.
However, following a meeting with Yost, Hanks changed his mind and on June 26 reversed his vote. Although he vowed he would continue to try to get the project to work, he later abandoned his efforts due to what he said was public opposition.
O’Brien, concerned Thompson and Hanks had kept him out of the loop over the waste-to-energy project leading up to the initial vote, subsequently requested all e-mails between the commissioners and the prosecutor’s office. A county resident who managed O’Brien’s campaign also requested records pertaining to the project.
Subsequently, Hanks in August criticized O’Brien of leading a “witch hunt.”
Some time later, Thompson said a commissioner from another county approached him, having read some of the news coverage over the waste-to-energy project and the resulting fallout, and recommended a state-run dispute-resolution program.
On Oct. 19, Thompson and Hanks passed a resolution to utilize the mediation program, but O’Brien voted against it. He said at that meeting the only issue the board had was over the waste-to-energy project, which quickly devolved into an argument between him and Hanks.
On Nov. 25, the commissioners argued again publicly after O’Brien demanded that Thompson apologize for recent comments he had made to the Gazette.
Thompson had said in that article he had begun to lock his office door after hearing of an incident in which O’Brien entered the office of a county employee and searched his desk without permission. O’Brien said he was looking for a desk calendar to see when that employee would return.
As it stands, efforts to set up the conflict resolution are ongoing and a touchy subject any time it is brought up publicly. O’Brien has said he will not go forward with the program unless a specific public policy issue is identified as a topic of discussion.
Last week, Thompson suggested the commissioners discuss “communication and trust” with the mediator, but O’Brien remains skeptical. Thompson said he and Hanks were to move forward, but O’Brien was not.
O’Brien said he is not sure something intangible like “trust” can be addressed through a mediator.
“I was not going to commit to doing it because I didn’t want to waste taxpayer money on something that likely would not come to a resolution,” O’Brien told the Gazette last week.
But, he said if the state mediator contacts him and is able to show a meeting about “communication and trust” may be beneficial to county business, he would be more receptive.