Pataskala City Council on Oct. 1 voted 4-2 to require Councilman Mike Fox to recuse himself from the pending discussion and vote on 12 charges against West Licking Joint Fire District Chief David Fulmer.
Fox is Pataskala's representative on the fire board. He abstained from the Oct. 1 vote and will not be asked to step down from City Council.
Bryan Lenzo and Pat Sagar voted against the motion, saying Pataskala has a large population served by the fire district and the city should be represented in the vote on Fulmer's fate. The fire board put Fulmer on paid administrative leave in May and began an investigation shortly after. Documents obtained by a public records request indicate Fulmer, who earns $98,800 per year and still is on paid leave, could be charged with misconduct, poor use of public funds and tampering with public records.
Fulmer's public hearing was delayed for the second time last week (see related story, page XX). It has been rescheduled for Friday, Oct. 19.
Law Director Rufus Hurst was asked by City Council on Sept. 17 to investigate a complaint against Fox alleging inappropriate behavior April 25 at a Pataskala restaurant.
A woman identifying herself as Mary K. Wolfe in an email alleged Fox made an inappropriate racial comment about her and then questioned John Rinard, president of the West Licking Firefighters Association, about Fulmer's hiring in 2009 and his actions as fire chief.
The firefighters association is a nonprofit organization that runs the annual Pataskala Street Fair and provides support for the fire district.
Wolfe's email said Fox noticed Rinard at the restaurant and said to him, "That's not the same black girl I saw you running around town with last week." The email went on to say that Fox asked Rinard why the fire district hired its chief from outside the department and if he "thought Chief Fulmer was the right choice for the job."
Hurst said Oct. 1 that he interviewed nine people, including Fox, and determined there is no reason to ask Fox to step down from City Council.
He did, however, suggest "the appearance of impropriety" if Fox were to vote on the city's behalf during the fire district board hearings on Fulmer.
"I believe there is sufficient reason to believe that there would be doubts as to impartiality and the city's representation in the proceeding," Hurst said.
Fox disagreed, saying he is familiar with only two of the pending charges against Fulmer and called himself "terribly impartial."
He mentioned conflicts of interest other council members might have in replacing him on the fire board, saying Council President Dan Hayes has been quoted in the media on the issue and Sagar has voiced support for Fulmer.
Fox suggested that he recuse himself if City Council wished it.
Lenzo said he appreciated Fox's gesture but Pataskala should have a say in what happens to the chief.
"It's important for us to be represented on the fire board to be able to participate in the process so we represent the community, which represents the largest user of the fire department's services," Lenzo said after the Oct. 1 meeting. "I think it's a disservice to the taxpayers. Nothing personal against Mike Fox, but I think we have a duty to the community to have somebody represent us."
Hurst's investigation explored Fox's contact with Wolfe and Rinard and also led him to an alleged negative exchange with band boosters in August at the annual street fair.
Hurst interviewed Fox, Rinard, Wolfe, Darren Moyer, who witnessed the exchange in the restaurant and is employed by Fox; Douglas Joseph, who represented Reynoldsburg on the West Licking Joint Fire District board and resigned from the board in June in protest of its handling of Fulmer's suspension; Debra Tumblin, who works with the Watkins Memorial High School band and reportedly had an altercation with Fox at the street fair; Kris Bowers, president of the Watkins Memorial High School band boosters; Todd Bowers, band boosters treasurer; and Ron Tague, who was at the street fair with Rinard when the incident with Tumblin occurred.
The people involved with the band boosters questioned Fox's conduct, saying he cursed in front of high school students when requesting band members stop drumming in front of his business at the street fair. Fox maintains he did not use inappropriate language when speaking with Tumblin or Todd Bowers and he asked Hurst to speak with Tague and Rex Johnson, who was not interviewed.