TWINSBURG — City officials say they may have further discussions about a recent opinion which focused on the legality of "sober homes," after a possible conflict of interest was brought to light by a resident at Council’s Nov. 27 meeting.
Crestwood Drive resident Sue Clark, a proponent of communities’ rights to control the operation of sober homes for recovering alcohol and drug addicts, questioned why the city chose the Walter-Haverfield law firm to handle the legal opinion when one of its former employees is planning to open a sober home at 1890 Edgewood Drive.
"I believe the right thing to do is get another legal opinion, and have Walter-Haverfield return the money it was paid for its opinion," Clark said. "That opinion could have been biased since John Heer [who, along with his wife, Teri, plans to open the sober home] formerly was employed by that law firm for 10 years, according to his profile on LinkedIn."
John Heer was an associate attorney with the firm from 2000 to 2006 and a partner with the firm from 2012 to 2015, according to his LinkedIn profile. Heer did not return a call seeking comment.
Law Director David Maistros said he and Mayor Ted Yates knew about Heer’s previous employment with the law firm, but said they did not convey that to Council because Walter-Haverfield told him that Heer’s previous employment would have no bearing on its opinion.
Maistros said Walter-Haverfield has advised several communities on sober houses and similar facilities, and said the firm was the best option for the legal opinion.
"I don’t think there was any bias; the firm researched and relied on case law to arrive at its opinion," Maistros said.
"This firm has a good reputation and Mr. Maistros and I would never put the city into a circumstance that would create a bias situation," Yates said. "We’ve been involved in zoning for quite some time, and we thought we picked the best representative to study this. Multiple attorneys worked on it.
"I don’t have a concern with the opinion, but I can understand the concerns residents have. I’m sure Council will have more discussion, and will address this."
Several Council reps said they should have been told prior to hiring the firm.
"I’m flabbergasted. If we’d have known, we might have done things different," said Councilman Brian Steele. "We should have been told."
"I felt comfortable when we hired Walter-Haverfield, but now this makes me uneasy," said Councilman Sam Scaffide. "Now that we know about this, I’m sure there will be Council discussion about it."
"I thank Mrs. Clark for bringing this issue to our attention," said Councilman Scott Barr. "I think we all are surprised. I have a great deal of respect for Mrs. Clark’s commitment to this issue, and I appreciate all the research she has done."
The city paid Walter-Haverfield $3,471 for its legal opinion after the Heers unveiled plans to open the recovery house at a public forum in early August.
The opinion claims the city’s planning and zoning code permits operation of a sober home in single-family residential dwellings, and that to try to block such a use could result in "violations of federal and state laws and substantial legal bills."
Walter-Haverfield’s conclusion states, "The city should not take action to prevent or prohibit the proposed sober home," and the city "should not adopt any changes to the code to prohibit or impede the operation of a group home, including a sober home."
The opinion further states, "Permitting the operation of the proposed sober home and other similar facilities will allow the city to avoid an expensive and time-consuming legal dispute ... the city should avoid any action that indicates that it has acquiesced to community bias and stereotypical fears where there is no actual direct evidence of direct threats to persons and / or property from a sober home being located in a residential neighborhood."
Clark also has requested that the city contact the Heers to ask that the Walter-Haverfield legal opinion be removed from their website. The couple operates Akron Center for Recovery Inc.
"This new information [about Heer’s fomrer association with Walter-Haverfield] just doesn’t look good for the city," she said. "I’m disappointed in Council that you didn’t have more transparency. The residents in Glenwood Acres [where the proposed sober house is located] are really upset about this."
Update on Fair Housing Act measure
Meanwhile, city officials have said they are closely following the progress of a bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives that would amend the Fair Housing Act to address state and local zoning laws regarding recovery facilities.
HR 5724 specifies that federal anti-discrimination laws would not trump any state or local zoning laws that prohibit recovery facilities in residential areas. Recovery facilities also would have to comply with all state and local zoning laws to receive federal funds.
The bill has been referred to the House Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice.
Clark previously told Council she is actively promoting passage of the bill, and is seeking support from top officials such as Gov. John Kasich, U.S. Rep. David Joyce and U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman.
At a previous Council meeting, Scaffide and Steele both said while they support offering help to recovering addicts, they do not feel the proposed site in Twinsburg is appropriate.
"I won’t be satisfied with doing nothing," said Scaffide. "We will continue to research this issue and do what we can legally do to address these facilities. We want to be proactive."
Reporter Ken Lahmers can be reached at 330-541-9400 ext. 4189 or firstname.lastname@example.org.