BY WALT SCHAEFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer
A citizens' effort to remove Columbia Township Trustees Carl Fernandez and Susan Hughes was denied in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court on Monday.
Although Judge Ralph Winkler said the trustees violated Ohio law in approving work on private property, the legal transgressions were not judged serious enough for them to forfeit their offices. The judge said he also weighed the fact that the trustees are political novices.
"In order to remove a public official from office, the record must show clear and convincing evidence there has been substantial departure from the faithful performance of duty," the judge said. Judge Winkler's decision came in the third day of hearings into a citizens' petition to oust the trustees. The hearings began May 30. In documents attached to the petitions, attorney Timothy A. Garry Jr. charged, among other things, that Mr. Fernandez and Mrs. Hughes authorized township employees to work on private property using township equipment and materials, and that they violated township policies in firing former Administrator Jane Pirman without written notice. He also listed Mr. Fernandez's allegedly "outrageous conduct" toward citizens at township meetings. Judge Winkler said drainage work authorized on a private Bramble Avenue home was never completed, but that the resolution trustees passed to do it "is improper and contrary to Ohio law." Because work was never done, "I find it is not a substantial breach" of office.
In a second instance, work was completed on a wall at a private residence at Ridgewood Avenue and Ridge Road. The wall was damaged by a contractor working for the township. While Judge Winkler said the work also was a violation of state law, someone "saw a moral obligation to fix it," and the cost was only about $225. "I also find it is not substantial."
The judge ruled that the firing of Ms. Pirman "was within (trustees') rights" and that she may pursue a lawsuit to contest the action. As for Mr. Fernandez's demeanor, the judge said: "If we removed all of the elected officials who were rude, we'd have a lot of openings." However, Judge Winkler told the trustees: "I am not pinning any medals on you. . . . You have 3 1/2 years left on your terms, if you manage to serve them." He said the township "is in a state of disarray and chaos."
Following the decision, Mrs. Hughes promised the township will not do work on private property. "As far as any ill feelings toward anybody, I will not live with that. I'm not that kind of person. . . . We've learned a tremendous amount from this ordeal."
Mr. Fernandez said: "'It's over. It's behind us. Let's move forward . . . together."
Fran Marko, spokesman for the citizens' group, said he will confer with Mr. Garry to discuss appealing the ruling, and the citizens' group will consider an effort to recall the two trustees in January. Elected officials are subject to a recall vote by the electorate only after serving at least one year in office.