Licking County News

Fox will retain Pataskala City Council seat

Public apologies and reprimand resolves malfeasance hearing

By ThisWeek Community News  • 

Pataskala City Council and Councilman Mike Fox on Jan. 15 agreed to a negotiated deal requiring Fox to apologize for three malfeasance charges brought against him and accept a reprimand.

By doing so, Fox retained his seat on City Council.

Pataskala City Council members voted 4-1 to accept the agreement with Todd Barstow, Dan Hayes, Tim Hickin and Bryan Lenzo voting in favor of it and Pat Sagar voting against it. Law Director Rufus Hurst said acceptance of the agreement required a majority vote of City Council.

According to the agreement, Fox apologizes for the charges alleging that he committed malfeasance by participating in disciplinary proceedings for former West Licking Fire Chief David Fulmer after City Council directed him not to do so.

He also apologizes for an incident that occurred July 22, 2013, when heavy rainfall caused a section of foundation to collapse at a building at the northeast corner of Front and Main streets. Fox, whose businesses were based in the building, attempted "to obstruct official business by interfering with the fire department trying to secure the area for the purpose of protecting the public," according to the agreement.

Fox apologized publicly Jan. 6 for the third charge, for discussion of and voting on special counsel funding Dec. 16, which was recognized in the agreement.

"Based on the above acknowledgements and apologies, council finds a public reprimand is appropriate and sufficient to resolve the matter, and council member Mike Fox shall not be removed from council and the removal proceedings against council member Fox are complete pursuant to these findings," the agreement said.

Sagar said after the meeting she voted against the agreement because it was not in the city's best interests. She declined to elaborate.

Other City Council members and Mayor Mike Compton said they were happy to be moving forward.

"I think this was the best for everybody," Compton said.

Compton said the mood of the audience when the hearing began Jan. 14 -- it was recessed to Jan. 15 because of a procedural issue -- showed the "raw nerve" that had been touched by the proceedings.

Compton said the city has plenty of other pressing issues because "it's January, and we have new (City Council) members and we're moving forward, we're trying to hire an interim administrator and trying to start our (Roadway Asset Management Plan)."

The two newly elected City Council members -- Barstow and Hickin -- agreed.

Barstow said he didn't feel the process could end well financially for the city if the hearing had continued. He said it could have hurt Pataskala's image as the city tries to attract businesses to its corporate park.

Hickin said a "unified board and city is important."

"Battles like this only serve to separate," Hickin said.

City Council President Dan Hayes expressed a similar opinion.

"I appreciate Mr. Fox apologizing for his conduct and regret that it took the amount of time and resources expended to come to a resolution," Hayes said.

Lenzo said City Council could discuss Fox's removal only if the charges were "severe and egregious," which, he said, was not the case.

"Mike Fox was reprimanded and he apologized, and I think that's the appropriate outcome, given the nature of the accusations," Lenzo said. "It doesn't mean I'm not disappointed in Mike Fox's behavior. As City Council members, the public's expectations of us are very high. How we act in the community should be the example. We should be the leaders.

"I hope this causes Mike Fox to reflect on his approach and his tact."

Fox said he saved the city "a whole bunch of money" by signing the agreement. He said he still believes the charges were raised as a "personal issue" against him.

Fox said the city will have to pay his legal fees since the case was settled and he was not removed from City Council.

"If a person accused is not finally removed, the city shall pay the reasonable costs of the defense of such person and any compensation withheld pending the appeal of the action of the council," according to the city charter.

Fox said he has not received an estimated bill from his attorney, Acacia Perko of the Mallory Law Office of Columbus.

Hurst said Jan. 17 he is not sure about the city paying Fox's legal fees because he has not been asked by City Council to render an opinion on that.

He said he thought that would have been part of the agreement and said the wording in the charter does not mention how fees are paid after the "dismissal" of a removal hearing.

Fox was issued a letter Nov. 25 informing him City Council on Jan. 14 would hear two charges of malfeasance against him related to the firing of Fulmer and the July 22 incident.

Former Mayor Steve Butcher, who lost his re-election bid to Compton last November, served the letter to Fox because the city charter required the mayor to act as the "charging official."

In December, Butcher added the third charge of an ethical violation, alleging Fox voted Dec. 16 on a budget amendment that would have taken $25,000 for a special prosecutor out of the city's budget. Fox apologized Jan. 6 for voting on the issue and said he did not intend to vote on anything related to the Jan. 14 hearing.

The malfeasance hearing began Jan. 14 but Hurst recommended City Council recess until Jan. 15, at which time City Council could appoint someone to preside over what Hurst called "quasi-judicial administrative proceedings."

Hurst said the mayor typically presides over meetings but he said there were concerns with Compton because he tried to dismiss the charges against Fox at City Council's Jan. 6 meeting; he was subpoenaed by Fox's legal counsel; and he spent hours trying to resolve the issue prior to the hearing.

Hurst recommended using someone trained in the process to preside over the hearing.

Larry Arnold, a Hebron attorney who worked as an assistant county prosecutor, a referee and a magistrate in Licking County juvenile and probate courts, attended the Jan. 15 hearing.

Arnold was appointed by City Council to preside over the proceedings.

But Arnold's services weren't needed because City Council immediately voted to accept the agreement after Arnold introduced himself.

Several residents requested to speak when the hearing opened Jan. 14, but they were prohibited by Hurst's ruling that the meeting was a "quasi-judicial administrative proceeding."

City Council did not open the Jan. 15 hearing for public comment before adjourning.

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