ST. CLAIRSVILLE - Two Bridgeport village councilmen will not be allowed to attend council meetings until at least Oct. 2, and the village solicitor has stepped down from the case.
Those rulings came down Wednesday morning when Belmont County Probate Court Judge J. Mark Costine continued a case against councilmen Ben Lenz and Dave Smith, who are accused of double-dipping. The pair are also employed through the village as EMTs.
In attendance at Wednesday's brief meeting, which lasted no longer than 15 minutes, were attorneys Michael Shaheen and Alaire D. Mancz, representing the plaintiffs; Bridgeport Village Solicitor Mark A. Thomas; and four of the plaintiffs.
Prior to the court proceeding, an informal status conference was held in Judge Costine's chambers. Shaheen, Mancz and Thomas were in attendance, while attorney Greg Beck, representing the defendants, joined via conference call.
According to the judgment entry, certain undisclosed matters were discussed by those present prior to going on record.
On the record, Judge Costine discussed issues he had with the attorneys, and said that no attorney had requested him to recuse himself from the matter.
Thomas then argued that he has a conflict of interest in this matter in that he is the solicitor of the Village of Bridgeport and has discussed the matters set forth in the complaint with council members, including the two defendants prior to the filing of this action, the judgment entry said. He also disclosed that after the filing of this action, he had brief discussions with both defendants.
Shaheen, on behalf of the plaintiffs, also presented to the court that the plaintiffs believe Thomas has a conflict of interest in this matter and asked him to withdraw from representation of the plaintiffs in this matter as required by Ohio Revised Code.
The court granted Thomas's motion to withdraw from the case.
According to Shaheen, the Belmont County Prosecutor's Office has also said it didn't want any involvement, thus throwing another wrench into the works.
"State law says they don't have to get involved," Shaheen said of the prosecutor's office. "They are supportive of the case, but if they remain that way, non involved, the judge will appoint someone to prosecute the case."
A temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction, issued last week by Judge Costine, preventing Smith and Lenz from participating in any undertaking associated with their position with village council, including, but not limited to, council meetings, committee meetings, and communications with village officials until the conclusion of the case was also extended upon agreement by all attorneys involved.
The court, however, reserves jurisdiction to make further rulings on the TRO as may be necessary. The court also found that the village will not be irreparably harmed by the extension of the TRO and encourages village council and village officials to schedule council meetings and conduct the ordinary business.
Shaheen filed a four-page lawsuit nearly two weeks on the behalf of nine village residents against Smith and Lenz. Both Smith and Lenz are accused of hiring themselves in their capacities on council as EMTs through the village during their current terms.
According to Ohio Revised Code 705.12, a councilman is prohibited from being employed by the same entity and prohibited from having an interest "in the profits or emoluments of any contract, job, work, or service for the municipal corporation."
The lawsuit also alleges that Smith's wife, Misty, also receives compensation through the Village of Bridgeport Fire Department.
The nine village residents named as plaintiffs in the suit are John Porter, Shirleann Murad, James J. Murad, Mikida J. Clegg, H. James Brubach, Chris Tarter, Diane K. Orum, Anna M. Gallagher and William E. Clegg.
Costine temporarily suspended the pair from office last week over allegations of illegal and unethical actions, according to Shaheen.
That included a recent regularly scheduled village council meeting, which was ultimately postponed when Councilman Marvin Husarik announced he was unable to attend the meeting. That left the group without a quorum.
Along with possibly being removed from their council seats, Shaheen said the accused, if found to be in violation of the law, could be ordered to pay financial restitution to the village, and also could be responsible for the plaintiffs' legal fees.
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