Cell phone issue leads to scolding of trustees
Several criminal investigations are continuing in Springfield Township.
By MARY GRZEBIENIAK
NEW SPRINGFIELD -- Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul Gains is unhappy with two Springfield Township trustees' handling of a controversy over personal use of township-issued cell phones.
In a letter dated June 16, Gains said a cell phone policy trustees adopted last month, which retroactively allows employees to use township cell phones for personal use, is meaningless if the personal use is contrary to law.
"The board of trustees cannot authorize by resolution what is not otherwise authorized by law," the letter stated.
Gains also scolded trustees for approving the motion in light of the fact that his office's May 9, 2005, opinion "expressly advised the board that cell phone policies could not allow for personal use."
He said this advice was based on state law as well a consultation with the office of Ohio Auditor Betty Montgomery.
At their June 8 meeting, trustees Shirley Heck and Jim Holleran approved a resolution to retroactively allow Fire Chief Brian Hughes and EMS Captain Karen Philibin to make personal calls on township cell phones because they are on call 24 hours.
Trustee Reed Metzka voted against the resolution, stating it is illegal to make personal calls at township expense. The action followed criticism of trustees for allowing the two employees to make personal calls on township phones.
Gains also termed "unprofessional" and "not in the best interest of the township" the fact that Heck, after receiving Gains' opinion, sought outside counsel's advice on the issue because, Gains said, she disagreed with "the thoroughly researched opinions of this office."
He added, "Apparently, Trustee Heck did not inform outside counsel of all the facts, including the fact that this office had previously rendered the aforementioned opinion."
Gains pointed out, in addition, that an investigation by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation of the cell phone usage is still going on "to determine if it rises to a criminal level."
Gains also stated that with several other township-related criminal investigations pending in his office, and "due to the potential for criminal prosecutions," his office will not accept any new issues from Springfield Township until all the investigations are completed.
In addition to the cell phone use, the prosecutor's office has criminal investigations into the fire department and a possible ethical violation regarding the hiring of Heck's brother, Walter McKinney, as recycling coordinator.
The office also is handling two civil matters including a pending request for union recognition by the township road department as well as one for a determination of the legality of cul-de-sacs and sidewalks in township developments.
Gains did say his office will only accept legal questions from Clerk Patti Gibson because the clerk is unable to hire outside counsel.
Gains' office would not comment further on any of the issues, with a spokesman citing lawyer/client confidentiality.
Heck also declined comment, citing pending litigation.
No outright ban
Trustee Chairman Jim Holleran said Tuesday that it was his understanding that the Ohio Revised Code doesn't state outright that no personal calls can be made on township cell phones. He said the state auditor's policy likewise does not expressly forbid the practice.
He added he thought that when the prosecutor's office issued an opinion, "they gave you both sides and then you made a decision."
Only an unofficial phone use policy existed before the adoption last month of an official policy, he said. A phone-use policy, which is on Springfield Township letterhead stationery but is undated and unsigned, was apparently written by former Clerk Shirley Casity, Holleran said. Casity has since died.
The document states it is effective in January 2003 as well as stating that the fire chief and the EMS first captain are allowed to use the phones for "all EMS and fire calls including personal use."
However there is no record of the document ever being adopted as policy by trustees.
Holleran said statements have been made that Hughes was promised as a benefit of his employment that he could make personal calls on his cell phone. But that promise took place in an executive session for which there are no minutes, Holleran said. The closed-door session took place before Holleran's election as trustee.
He said he has been interviewed by a BCI investigator and that BCI took and examined computers used by the township secretary and the rescue squad and later returned them.
Holleran said he expects the investigation to be done by September. In the meantime, he said, all he can do is and wait and see if BCI "is going to charge us or not."