Nine village leaders resigned in Gratis last week, leaving vacancies on city council and in public safety.
On Wednesday, July 23, a special meeting resulted in the official resignation of the nine people, including three members of council, the mayor, the village administrator, members of the fire department, as well as the fire and police chief of the Village of Gratis.
Council member Heather Troth was not present at the meeting. A motion to excuse her from the meeting was passed with a 3-2 vote. Councilman Frank Davis and Councilwoman Jessica Bone voted against excusing her.
Council accepted the resignations of Wilson Paxton, Josh Forrer, and Drew Forrer, all members of the Gratis Fire Department.
The official resignation letter of Gratis Mayor, Kathy Lewis, council members Bone, Davis, and Rodney Forrer, and Village Administrator John Cassidy reads: “The unprofessional conduct of council member Heather Troth has served to undermine the council’s work and the mayor’s and village administrator’s ability to effectively manage the day-to-day affairs of the Village of Gratis. Therefore, it is with deep regret that we resign from our positions with the Village of Gratis effective immediately.”
“We hated to do it,” Davis said of the resignations in a separate interview on Friday, July 25. “But sometimes, you have no choice.”
“We all really had very high hopes of being able to move the village forward, and I think we were making a lot of progress toward that, but then things took a turn for the worse,” said Lewis.
Taxes on Gratis residents are at the forefront of the controversy.
On Sept. 19, 2013, the Village of Gratis held a regular council meeting, during which a resolution was passed which did not comply with the Ohio Revised Code. Then-mayor Gary Vest sat with then-council members Julie Huff, David Johnston, J.C. Moses, Dale Smith, Debby Vest, and Donna Waller.
According to official minutes taken from the meeting, the ordinance would bring a “one percent tax from the working people, it will not tax social security or retirement pay.”
“The mayor said to the council members that they know what it takes to run this village and it is up to them whether or nor to proceed,” read the official minutes. According to the minutes, Debby Vest stated, “we should all be proud that we live [in Gratis] and want to make it better.”
Each ordinance passed by a legislative body must be read “on three different days,” according to the Ohio Revised Code. The three readings may be waived, however, by “at least three-fourths of its members,” reads the ORC 731.17.
The meeting proceeded in Gratis with the motion to suspend the three readings of the one-percent income tax ordinance.
The votes read as follows, according to the official meeting minutes, “Julie Huff- no, David Johnston- yea, Dale Smith- yea, Debby Vest- yea, Donna Waller- no.”
Three out of five council members voted yes to suspend the three readings, totaling to 66 percent, not meeting the minimum requirement of 75 percent, however, the meeting carried on with council accepting the ordinance as passed.
To accept the ordinance, J.C. Moses, Dale Smith, and Debby Vest voted yes. Julie Huff, David Johnston, and Donna Waller voted no, creating a tie. Mayor Vest voted yes to break the tie, a legal move according to the ORC. “[The Mayor] shall be the president of the legislative authority and shall preside at all regular and special meetings thereof, but shall have no vote except in case of a tie,” reads the 733.24 section of the ORC.
During the Wednesday, July 23, special meeting, concerns regarding this illegal move were discussed.
“The Village of Gratis is collecting on a one-percent income tax that they have illegally collected,” said Councilman Frank Davis. “They are going to have to refund the money.”
Mayor Lewis said of the passing of the ordinance in September 2013, “There was a motion to waive the three readings and there weren’t enough votes to waive the three readings; and it was passed as an emergency measure, and once the readings were not waived, the motion was dead. But, the council at that time went ahead and passed it and put it into effect … we feel the only thing we can do at this juncture is to refund the money.”
In an interview with Frank Davis, Friday, July 25, he said of the September 2013 meeting, “In my opinion, you had six council people that were all senior council people who served on the Village of Gratis for many years, and you’ve had a mayor that’s been on the council for many years, (and) that they don’t know how to create and how to pass an ordinance and resolution. After listening to a couple of the council people … they knew it was wrong, they just went and voted ‘no’ to save face in the village, and tried to sneak it under the citizens. The citizens of Gratis need to know how undermining this was to them, this tax. It’s an unfair tax that was not put in right. They had the opportunity to do it right, they just didn’t,” he said.
In other business, council entered executive session, Wednesday, July 23, to discuss the hire of a new police and fire chief. Eric Stevens was appointed as a part-time police chief for the Village of Gratis.
A 1.3 mill tax levy, proposed in May, was also discussed. The levy, initially voted down in the spring, would grant the village 1.3 mills ($0.13/dollar) of property valuation for every day operating costs. A motion to proceed with the 1.3 mill tax levy, despite the income tax issue, was approved by council.
An emergency council meeting was held the morning of Friday, July 25, at the village office. Council members Heather Troth, Donna Waller, and David Johnston were present with Margee McClain as village clerk. The emergency meeting was held to appoint David Johnston as President Pro-Tem and Andy Cook as interim fire chief. The president pro-tem will execute official documents on behalf of the village consistent with the laws of the village and the State of Ohio. Cook will remain fire chief until council deems otherwise.
Johnston will serve out the remainder of the mayor’s term as president pro-tem, or until a new mayor can be elected.
Johnston said the people who resigned at the July 23 meeting resigned “for no reason,” but that decisions made on Friday were made “as instructed” by the Village Solicitor Phillip Callahan. “As soon as we get set up to know what to do next, we’ll have a regular meeting and get everybody that’s supposed to be on council back,” said Councilman Johnston.
Davis said of former Mayor Lewis, “She was the heartbeat. Me, the other council members, had the utmost respect for her. Our village administrator, he was excellent … that’s the best mayor that they ever would have had; she’s smart. Heather Troth absolutely tried to intimidate her … You have to have people together, and she turned on us.”
Details surrounding Troth’s role in the resignation of various persons in the village is unclear, however Lewis said “it wasn’t any particular meeting, it was more things that were evolved over the last several weeks … it’s just really unfortunate. We just felt like we couldn’t move forward on that basis.”
Troth declined to comment on the issue and phone calls to Troth had not been returned at press time.