Collecting more than 4,000 signatures was enough for Liberty Township residents to get a court hearing to try to remove two township trustees from office.
But visiting Judge Guy Reece, a retired Franklin County Common Pleas Court judge, made clear in the first day of the removal for cause hearing that removing Michael Gemperline and Melanie Leneghan won’t be simple.
Reece upheld a motion July 23 to dismiss one accusation against the trustees by the group known as Save Our Services. It accused the trustees of plotting to replace the township's emergency medical services, which also serve the city of Powell, with a service provided by Delaware County Emergency Medical Services.
Attorney Brandon Abshier told Reece, “It’s a scary proposition that, if trustees are thinking or contemplating certain actions, that they can be removed from office.”
Abshier maintains that the residents are upset with trustees over policy disagreements, not wrongdoing, malfeasance or inability to do their jobs, which are among the criteria to remove a public official.
Reece repeatedly asked the attorneys for the petitioners if the trustees have the authority to make changes to emergency services.
Attorney Corey Colombo conceded that they do. But he said the methods they used, including abruptly dismissing the township’s longtime medical director, are at issue.
“It was dangerous to remove someone with so much experience, with no plan in place,” Colombo said.
“Was it irresponsible? Or in a way that people disagreed with them?” Reece asked.
Because of schedule conflicts, the bench hearing will resume Aug. 12. It may take up to two weeks, Reece said, with 20 or more witnesses.
The action is the culmination of several rancorous township meetings last year and early this year during which residents shouted down comments from Leneghan, who, in return, had people removed for disruptions. Gemperline, a first-term trustee, has voted with Leneghan, a second-term trustee.
At least one other Delaware County trustee attended the hearing. Some are wondering if this case might lead to others in order to settle disputes.
Reece, 75, urged attorneys from both sides to speak to each other and “attempt to resolve matters yourself.”
It was a message that could equally apply to residents and trustees.
Doing so, Reece said, “both of you will walk away feeling that you’ve gained something.”
Save Our Services spokesman Nico Franano said the group "obviously" disagrees with the ruling to dismiss one of the complaints, but "it preserves eight of nine complaints against Melanie Leneghan and four of five against Michael Gemperline," he said.
"It doesn't at all affect the vigor with which we will argue the remaining complaints," he said.
Attempts to reach Gemperline for comment were not immediately successful. Leneghan is out of town due to a prior commitment and did not attend the July 23 hearing.
-ThisWeek correspondent Jim Fischer contributed to this story.