Galion City Council President Carl Watt shook his head Thursday night during a heated Police, Fire and Health Committee meeting.
“I thought I (saw) every low-down dirty trick,” Watt said, talking about his experience on Galion City Council and the Crawford County Board of Commissioners. “But this tops them all.”
Watt’s frustration was backed by a variety of Galion officials who were angered by City Treasurer Paula Durbin’s refusal to sign a check to pay for the Fire Department’s purchase of a $695,000 aerial fire truck.
According to officials during Thursday night’s meeting, City Council had originally approved the purchase in 2013 through state appropriations, the truck was ordered in 2014 and was supposed to be picked up Thursday.
One problem, the check wasn’t signed Thursday.
Durbin said she wouldn’t sign the check in an email to City Auditor Brian Treisch and Safety Service Director John Swain Thursday morning. She elaborated her contention in an email to the Inquirer following the meeting Thursday night, by saying that she felt the following steps were not taken.
“I am asking for the documentation for the fire truck,” she said in the email. “Is there an ordinance authorizing the service/safety director to do bids for the fire truck? Is there an ordinance authorizing the service/safety director to enter into a contract?
“These have to be done according to Ohio Law ORC 5705.41, (which) states that a contract cannot be signed until appropriations are in place. I spent hours this past weekend reading every council agenda from January, 2014 to present. I could not find an ordinance concerning the two things mentioned. When I asked (City Auditor Brian) Treisch on Monday about the documentation, his response was, “this is the way (City Fiscal Supervisor) Belinda (Miller) wanted it done.
“I sent an email to Ms. Miller asking her what Brian meant, (but) she never answered my question. She went on about (how) the fire truck takes a year to build and monies were appropriated and the city did the purchasing through the state purchasing agency, I understand, (but) my question remains where are these ordinances authorizing the safety service director to do these two things. I have asked at least three times and have received nothing. If these were in place I would have signed the check by now. Dr. (Thomas) Fellner, (another Galion Councilman) texted me this afternoon and I explained to him why I could not sign the check and he said he understood.”
Durbin did not attend the committee meeting Thursday night and reportedly refused to sign the check again early Friday.
Other Galion officials say they feel her contentions were a road block that was inappropriately used.
“We used a state schedule to get the best price,” Galion Fire Chief Phil Jackson said. “There have been no questions in the past two years. We assembled a great truck for the city of Galion. It’s simply playing politics with safety. It’s jeopardizing my guys and the city of Galion.”
Galion Law Director Thomas Palmer said he is investigating the matter and said the city could take action in The Common Pleas Court of Crawford County as early as next week to try to get the check signed.
“We’re checking to make sure every ‘i’ was dotted and ‘t’ was crossed,” he said. “The information that (Durbin) has shared hasn’t led (me) to believe that something was done incorrectly. It takes time, but we know that we need the truck. We’re moving as quickly as we can. It’s $695,000 of taxpayer money. The human element is also important and merits attention.”
Durbin disagreed, saying in her email following the meeting that she felt she wouldn’t be following the law if she signed the check.
“This is not a legal transaction per Ohio law,” she continued. “I am not willing to forfeit my bond for someone else’s mistake. I have been in contact with the State Auditor’s office in Columbus and was told if you are not comfortable signing the check, don’t sign it. If I have the documentation I requested, I would sign the check, but so far nothing has been given to me.”
Palmer said he feels that Durbin’s ability to not sign checks is limited.
“The discretion that treasurer has is remarkably small,” he said. “If things are done right, she has no right (to not sign the check).”
Other committee members were quick to agree with Jackson and Palmer.
“This is bush league in my opinion,” Councilman Jon Kleinknecht said. “It’s politics being played with public safety and safety (of) our firefighters. There’s no logic in this.”
“She only comes to meetings when she has a complaint,” Councilwoman Shirley Clark said.
“She doesn’t come to meetings, where she has ample opportunity to express concerns,” Councilwoman Sarah Capretta said. “It’s a game (to her) and I don’t appreciate it at all. These questions have been answered in meetings. You have a duty to come to meetings and have a chance to express concerns. (She is) wasting taxpayer’s money, all because she can’t come to meetings. If she can’t do her job now, she can’t do her job (as a councilwoman). I’ve only heard a report form her once since I joined Council. You’re not for the city, you are against it. The Fire Department deserves more.”
Galion Mayor Tom O’Leary said Durbin should have handled the matter better.
“It’s not a game,” he said. “This is something that could have been brought up elected official to elected official. It’s no big deal. We’ll work through it. I appreciate the frustration. I’m frustrated. It’s eating up a lot of the city and chief’s time. It’s important to note we’ll have the truck and try to procure it without the tit for tat. The citizens deserve more and they are getting more. It’s sort of sad. It diminishes a profession of public service. Maybe we’re making a mistake by giving this stunt too much attention.”
Durbin said she didn’t feel her act was a stunt at all.
“All I asked for was the documentation to back up this expenditure and it turns into an Inquisition,” she said. “Just a simple question. If the ordinances were done where are they? I take my job very seriously and try to be a good watchdog of the citizens’ public funds and they turn it into this … Just doing my job. But what really made me question this was when Mr. Treisch said “this is how Belinda wanted it done”. This made no sense to me and when I asked Belinda what Brian meant by that, she never answered me. That’s when I felt something was not right.”
Pugh is the Group Content Editor for the Galion Inquirer, Bellville Star, Morrow County Sentinel and Knox County Citizen. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @pughcivitas.