Note: This story appears in the Friday, July 13 newspaper on Page A1.
NELSONVILLE — The status of two Nelsonville City Council members who were appointed to fill vacant seats is in doubt, with questions raised as to their eligibility to serve.
Meanwhile, several on council are asking for a special meeting to be held Monday to affirm those two members’ spots.
The controversy involves the status of Dottie Fromal and Grant Guda. Both were voted in by council members to fill vacant seats — Fromal on July 9 and Guda on March 26.
There are seven total seats on council. When a seat is vacant, the remaining members get to vote on a replacement. The Nelsonville city charter requires a “majority vote” to fill a seat.
However, neither of those two actually received majority votes. Fromal and Guda each received three out of six votes, with the result in the July and March votes being being a split 3-2-1 decision. A few minutes after the 3-2-1 vote for Guda, council reaffirmed his selection again by a unanimous vote.
Despite not receiving a true majority, the two were sworn-in for receiving the most votes.
No problems arose following Guda’s appointment, but an argument arose during the July 9 meeting when Fromal’s vote took place. Councilman Greg Smith insisted a majority — at least four votes — was required for Fromal to be sworn-in.
City Attorney Garry Hunter was absent from that meeting. Hunter had offered a written opinion ahead of time that a majority was needed for a council seat selection.
But without Hunter on hand to explain voting requirements in further detail, some members including acting president Dan Sherman viewed Hunter’s legal opinion as only applying to four members being needed to select the council president.
“All right, let’s move on,” The Messenger quoted Sherman as saying. “Dottie, let’s get you sworn-in.”
Though a special meeting has been requested, City Manager Charles Barga said Thursday he had not sent out a public notice of a special meeting for July 16 because “I have not been notified to do a press release.”
Fromal said the meeting should be open to the public without going behind closed doors at any time.
Fromal said Thursday that she does not believe her or Guda’s selections should be undone because they have both been sworn-in. She and Guda each signed a document confirming their council positions, which were both also signed by the council president.
Fromal also said she has requested a copy of her signed form upon swearing in, but has yet to receive it from the city.
“I’m already a member of City Council. I don’t think they can take that away,” she said.
Fromal offered that she is already performing her council member functions as an advocate for the city on issues that include providing safe recreational activities for children. She is a photographer as well as the site lead for The Hive, a free drop-in program for children located on Public Square.
Guda works as a caregiver for two agencies that provide services to people with disabilities.
The Messenger has left voicemail and email messages for Hunter, who has not returned multiple requests seeking his legal opinion on what the solution is for determining how to proceed following the council’s selection of its two newest members under controversy.
Barga, asked Wednesday what legal remedy is under consideration, told The Messenger: “Four votes were needed. Garry Hunter is working on the paperwork to make everything legal. That is all I can tell you.”
Asked if that means undoing the selections of Fromal and Guda, Barga responded “no.”
However, Fromal reached out to Sherman through an email Wednesday seeking to clarify the situation and affirm her position on council.
“I hope we can all cooperate, respect one another and work towards the common good of the city and its citizens,” she wrote in the email, which The Messenger has obtained.
Sherman seeks council appointment opportunity
Though Sherman led Fromal’s swearing-in earlier this week, he has apparently reversed course. Reached by The Messenger on Thursday, Sherman said both of the appointments in question should be null and void.
While the city charter gives council the first choice in filling a vacant seat, the council president has the option to appoint someone if 30 days has passed. Sherman now says he should be given the opportunity as acting president of council to select two new members.
Sherman expressed that view to fellow council members in an email exchange, which The Messenger has obtained. Councilman Taylor Sappington objected strenuously to the scenario of Sherman appointing two new members.
Sherman became acting president following the June 11 council resignation of Ed Mash, who had also been council president. Sherman had been serving as vice president.
Sappington noted that Sherman was never voted on to be acting president by his fellow council members and so his power should be limited.
Sappington also said he believes the acting president is not supposed to act unilaterally. A new, lasting council president will likely be voted on during the next regular council meeting scheduled Aug. 13.
“It (city Charter) says the council president can or may appoint. It does not say the council president must,” Sappington wrote in a Wednesday email to Sherman. “Dan, I can guarantee that this council will vote against your leadership if your over-ride a vote needlessly just because you have a personal vendetta against Dottie.”
Sherman responded a few minutes later to Sappington, “I will tell you one more time do NOT THREATEN ME!!!”
“There is no threat,” Sappington replied. “I’m telling this council that an illegal usurpation of a council action will guarantee a fight at every level. I will not let you attack (our) city’s democracy.”
Smith supports Sherman’s right to make appointments
Smith, who first brought up the majority vote issue this past Monday, wrote in an email Wednesday to fellow members that he believes Sherman has the legal right to appoint two new council members.
Smith also indicated that all split votes Guda had been involved in the past three and a-half months as a council member since his March 26 selection would need to be voided.
Sappington responded to Smith, “If any action is taken by any council president unilaterally, it will not only be illegal, it will be a severe breach of trust and ethics. Greg, your advice to Dan is poison and you know it.”
Smith responded to Sappington, offering that in voting for Fromal and Guda when four votes were required and not three, it was Sappington who had breached ethical bounds.
The first 4-3 split vote Guda was involved in, on March 26, was his being the deciding vote in the council passing an ordinance against proposed bobcat trapping in southeast and eastern Ohio. Guda was against bobcat trapping and thereby voted for the resolution, while Smith voted against it as did Sherman.
Guda was asked for his view Thursday on his council membership as it stands.
“I hope that Dan (Sherman) will do the right thing, in resolving this issue and from my time on council, getting to know him, I think he will,” Guda said. “He cares about Nelsonville, like the rest of council. There has just been a lot of miscommunication between council members but I am hopeful and have faith that we can all resolve our differences and continue to do great things for the community.”