Canal Winchester City Council finally has a new president, but the selection of Mike Walker to the post did not end one member's questions about whether councilman Chuck Milliken should have cast a vote.
After weeks of delay, council agreed by a 4-2 vote Feb. 18 to choose Walker as president, with Mike Coolman, Bob Clark, Milliken and Walker in favor and council members Pat Lynch and Will Bennett voting no.
Councilwoman Jill Amos did not attend the meeting because of illness.
The issue involved the relationship between Walker and Milliken and whether it was appropriate for Milliken to vote for Walker as council president because he rents a residence from Walker.
Milliken abstained from the first vote during the Jan. 6 organizational meeting, when council elects its president and vice president and makes committee assignments for the year.
His abstention meant the first vote to elect Walker ended in a 3-3 tie, with Amos, Lynch and Bennett voting against Walker. A motion to elect Bennett as president Jan. 6 was defeated 4-3.
On Jan. 20, Milliken sought a written advisory opinion from the Ohio Ethics Commission, he said. Before he received a reply, he spoke Feb. 14 to staff advisory attorney Karen King, who said the letter had not been received and asked him to send her another copy of it. She explained in a Feb. 14 email that "the commission policy is for staff to provide general information about the ethics law and commission precedent whenever possible.
"Commission staff cannot provide verbal or written advisory opinions in response to questions posed on the telephone or in an email," she wrote.
King did email Milliken information on ethics commission precedent, and based on that information, Milliken said he felt comfortable voting Feb. 18.
"As long as I'm paying fair-market value (for the lease) and Mr. Walker holds no authority over me, then we're good to go," Milliken said.
Ohio ethics law states that a council member is not prohibited from acting on matters affecting the interests of his or her landlord if the council member can "objectively demonstrate" four factors:
* The property that is being leased is not the subject of the land-use matter.
* The rent, terms or duration of the lease is not changed in consideration for, or recognition of, the actions of the council member.
* No disputes exist between the council member and the lessor regarding the lease or the leased property.
* The rent and other terms and duration of the lease between the council member and his landlord are fixed by contract.
Milliken said he signed his two-year lease well before he decided to run for council.
Both he and Walker were elected to four-year terms in November 2019.
Paul M. Nick, executive director of the ethics commission, said he believes the agency did record receipt of Milliken's letter around Feb. 24. However, because Milliken already had voted, Nick said, the commission would not issue an advisory opinion "after the fact."
Lynch, who initially questioned the appropriateness of Milliken's vote, said he would file a complaint with the ethics commission.
"I'm not comfortable with the results," he said.
"We, as council, never got a formal response. My interpretation (of the precedent) was that this would be a conflict of interest."
Lynch said it was his understanding that law director Gene Hollins would seek an opinion on the matter before council proceeded with choosing a president. However, Hollins told council it was up to Milliken to determine the appropriateness of his vote because Hollins represents the city, not individual council members.
"It just seems like to me (the law director) is washing his hands of it or doesn't want to be part of it," Lynch said. "That raises a red flag. I thought this was an issue that affected the entire council."
Walker said he's ready to move forward and will work to bring council together.
"I am honored and humbled to be voted in as council president for this great city by my fellow council members," Walker said. "I will provide steady leadership in my role as council president and always put the residents and businesses first in any decisions that I make.
"I am humble enough to understand my role as a member of City Council and not someone who has obtained a position for my ego. With God's blessing, I will work in harmony with my fellow council members to create a great environment for everyone."
Coolman, who unanimously was elected vice president during the Jan. 6 meeting, had been acting as president, according to the rules of council.
The council president's powers include presiding at all regular council meetings and serving as mayor on a permanent or temporary basis should the office become vacant.
The council president makes $7,251 annually, the vice president is paid $6,921 and the members of council earn $6,592.