MUNROE FALLS — While a settlement agreement has been reached in the lawsuit filed by Councilman Mike Barnes against Mayor James Armstrong and the city over public records requests, the controversy is not over yet.
Barnes filed the complaint against the city and Armstrong last August with the Summit County Common Pleas Court, alleging he had not received responses to public records requests he had made. In November, the city filed a counterclaim seeking a writ of mandamus ordering Barnes to "immediately produce the documents" that the city requested from Barnes in early October.
In a settlement agreement filed earlier this month, all parties "have agreed to fully and finally settle all matters relating to the Complaint and the Counterclaim." Both parties are responsible for their own legal expenses.
But the settlement agreement isn’t ending the conflict — the six other city council members and the mayor are supporting a proposed official reprimand of Barnes that council will consider at its Aug. 6 meeting.
The settlement agreement states Barnes "acknowledges and agrees" that the city has provided all the public records described in the complaint or he has waived such requests. Armstrong said the city did receive its requested documents and "Mr. Barnes signed a statement that he had provided all the documents requested."
It also outlines the procedure the two parties should follow in the event a future dispute arises with regard to a public records request made by Barnes. "Barnes and the city will at all times act in good faith and make every effort to resolve any dispute informally," it also states.
Both parties have expressed frustration that there was even a lawsuit on the books, pointing the finger at each other for the conflict.
Barnes said he felt filing the lawsuit was necessary when he believed his public record requests were being ignored or delayed and was unable to get responses from the city. "I needed to get their attention," he said.
"The tragedy here is I legally asked for and complied with Ohio’s public records law. They stalled and acted like it was my fault, but it is their fault," he added.
Armstrong sees it another way, calling it a "politically motivated lawsuit," stating the city had responded to over 90 percent of Barnes’ record requests. "Personally, I think it was just a publicity stunt," adding he believes Barnes "was just out to cause problems . . . I never thought the lawsuit had any business being filed in the first place."
Both Armstrong and Barnes have filed their petitions to appear on the November ballot for the office of the city’s mayor.
According to Armstrong, the lawsuit cost the city about $45,000 in outside legal fees, an expense both men feel was unnecessary but obviously for different reasons. The city claims city law director Tom Kostoff couldn’t be involved in the legal action, due to concerns of a possible conflict of interest.
The mayor called it "unbelievably expensive . . . a colossal waste of money for no reason" and said the figure doesn’t include the cost of city personnel in the process of filling the public records requests.
Barnes contends the funds didn’t need to be spent on a case that never saw a day in court, had the city complied with all his records requests. "Tom Kostoff by contract is paid separately $125 - $175 per hour to specifically handle public records requests — yet we have paid [outside] representation that would lead to the majority of records being released — uncontested. At $175 per hour, we paid for 240 hours of ‘work’ to release the requested records."
Council president Jenny Markovich says the financial cost to the taxpayers is frustrating and is the basis for the proposed resolution of reprimand.
"It is incomprehensible to me why a city council person would file this type of lawsuit, resulting in legal fees to the city he purports to represent."
When asked the purpose of the proposed reprimand, Markovich has said, "I want our residents to know the facts. The city could have used these taxpayer dollars to provide additional city services to benefit our residents and businesses."
She added the reprimand is council’s way "to say to Mr. Barnes, ‘we don’t appreciate what you did.’"
She says Barnes was asked by herself and Councilman Gary Toth to dismiss the case and pursue alternative ways to resolve the issues "that were far less expensive than litigation," but he declined.
Barnes acknowledged he was asked to drop his case. "I said ‘yes, once the city responded to my requests.’ Not a single councilor asked what the city was doing to respond to my legal requests."
When asked about the proposed reprimand, Barnes responded, "This is a ridiculous political stunt to deflect attention from the consequence of ignoring lawful requests for information that later proved to be embarrassing . . . I look forward to the flogging and to giving our citizens a response to [council’s] petty and meaningless allegations reprimanding me for my constitutionally protected actions."
The proposed legislation, Resolution 2019-45, will be on the Aug. 6 council agenda for a first reading; Markovich said she expects it to be approved that night.
Marsha McKenna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-541-9430.