Breach of Confidence Leads to a City Council Censure
On Monday, August 20, the Oberlin City Council voted 4-3 to censure Councilman Tony Mealy for publicly disclosing statements made by another city council member, David Ashenhurst, during an executive session on Thursday, July 5. The censure dealt specifically with a quotation published in The Elyria Chronicle-Telegram on August 1, in which Mealy highlighted Ashenhurst as the only city council member who was “hesitant” to hire city manager candidate Marcia Conner. Conner eventually declined the city of Oberlin’s offer, choosing instead to remain as city manager in Atlantic Beach, SC after the town made a better counteroffer.
Ashenhurst characterizes Mealy’s breach of executive session as extending beyond the quotation in the Chronicle-Telegram. “The censure was not a result of Tony’s quote in the Chronicle-Telegram….He had actually breached the confidence within three days of that executive session in much more direct terms, it was just that we had people who couldn’t quite remember what he said or when he said it or didn’t want to get involved.”
Ashenhurst added, “The executive session was on the fifth of July and by the eighth of July, I had people coming and telling me what he was saying. But as I said…proving that wasn’t the easiest thing to do until he said it to a reporter.” Ashenhurst also notes that despite some reservations, “I wasn’t going to vote against [Conner] and I made that very clear.”
Mealy defended himself, saying, “They make a claim that I...I hate to say this… they’re claiming that I told the press things that Mr. Ashenhurst said at an executive session, which is incorrect. There’s no more than that.”
Mealy also questioned the motives of the council members who voted for his censure, saying, “They’re playing politics. There’s a group that does not want to hire a city manager. They want to hold off the search until after the new council is elected and then maybe they put their own person in. That’s the only thing I can speculate.”
Since the end of August, a debate has risen as to the fairness of the censure. An Oberlin News-Tribune editorial, “Don’t Censure Openness,” published on August 28, calls the censure “chilling in terms of Ohio’s Sunshine Laws,” and questions the censure’s basis on Robert’s Rules of Order rather than council rules or Ohio law.
In a letter to the editor published on Tuesday, Sept. 11, responding to The Oberlin News-Tribune’s editorial, City Councilman Charles Peterson notes that in justifying the censure, City Council President Daniel Gardner properly cited Section 102.03 (B) of the Ohio Ethics Code, which mandates that no public official disclose information acquired in confidential proceedings. Peterson justifies the council’s censure of Mealy, arguing that while the city continues to search for a city manager, it is necessary that candidates can trust that they will be treated with discretion by the City Council. He also notes that council members need to be able to speak in confidence without the fear that their words will be publicized and politicized.
Gardner also expressed his concern over the breach of the executive session, noting, “When a body meets in executive session it is understood that conversations are to be kept confidential.” He added, “The concern was that…if the matter was not addressed then it might well affect the [city manager] search.”
City Council Vice President Ronnie Rimbert and Councilman Everett Tyree joined Mealy in voting against the censure. Rimbert did not respond to requests for an interview in time for publication. Gardner, however, indicated that “Rimbert had concerns about the process by which the censure measure offered to the council,” noting that Rimbert did not know about the measure until it appeared on the agenda.
Mealy insisted that the censure was inappropriate and confusing for the public: “Most of the people don’t even understand the issue,” he said. “They’re saying, ‘They’re trying to tell Mealy to shut up? They should know better than that.’”
The city manager search continues. This past week city manager candidate Eric Norenberg visited Oberlin and met with the City Council and members of the community.