Written by Larry Limpf
September 13, 2008
What began as a request by Gibsonburg Mayor Ed Herman, Jr., for Police Chief Michael Benton to attend meetings of the village planning commission branched into an investigation spanning more than a year.
An inch-thick report of the chief’s investigation focuses on real estate transactions, questionable billing, and possible conflicts of interest by elected and appointed officials, including a former village solicitor and the current administrator.
Chief Benton last week confirmed he has sent the report to the Ohio Ethics Commission and Sandusky County prosecutor. As of last week, the ethics commission and prosecutor hadn’t taken action.
The report contends:
•Administrator David Johnson used his position to impede a lot split on Windsor Lane where a contractor wanted to move homes.
•Former solicitor Ladd Beck repeatedly tried in 2006 to convince village council that two streets, Meadow and Windsor lanes, had never been properly dedicated as public streets with the Sandusky County recorder’s office and offered to do the legal work for $2,000 – even though the streets had been dedicated five years earlier and Mr. Beck - as solicitor - had filed the papers with the county.
•Mr. Beck overbilled the village for a traffic citation case that was never prosecuted.
•Former councilman Michael Fork used his position on council to undermine the chief’s investigation and tried to have the chief disciplined after Mr. Fork learned of the probe.
Lot split an issue
The mayor asked the chief in January, 2006 to attend planning commission meetings.
“Although the mayor indicated he felt my presence would assist the commission, based on my knowledge of the community, it was obvious during the course of our conversation he held deeper concerns,” the chief’s report says. “One such concern was the manner in which a lot split involving local businessman Mark Buck, dba Buck House Moving, was being dealt with. Mayor Herman… informed me he was concerned Administrator David K. Johnson may be trying to prevent Buck from developing the property, as same is adjacent to property owned by Johnson…”
The report alleges Mr. Johnson, who was trying to sell a nearby residence on the corner of E. Yeasting and Windsor Lane, feared Mr. Buck’s project of moving three houses to Windsor would hurt the chances of selling his own property.
Chief Benton contends Mr. Beck and Mr. Johnson dominated planning commission meetings even though they weren’t commission members. Ohio Revised Code states village councils may establish five-member planning commissions that include the mayor, one member of council, and three residents.
The report says Mr. Johnson, who also serves as the village zoning administrator and is a former commission member, in effect, controlled planning commission meetings and even prepared an agenda for the Feb. 8, 2006 meeting rather than councilmember Don Kirwen, the commission president.
Mr. Buck did eventually receive permission to move the houses and Mr. Johnson later sold his property but it took Mr. Buck almost a year of attending meetings of the planning commission and village council – only to find more conditions placed on the project before getting the go-ahead.
Letters between Mr. Buck and Mr. Johnson from February through August, 2006 indicate the administrator was pressing Mr. Buck to replace two storm basins on Windsor, install new sidewalks, and to secure performance bonds before the moving project would be permitted
“Johnson was apparently attempting to get the planning commission to have Buck resolve very expensive infrastructure problems that have existed for more than 25 years that had absolutely nothing to do with this…project and were problems the village had ignored for decades,” the report says. “The bonds Johnson is demanding are not supported by existing statute or ordinance…”
Easement issue raised
During the Aug. 17, 2006 meeting of village council Mr. Beck informed council a property title searcher had told him the title company may prevent a land sale along Windsor and Meadow because they weren’t public right-of-ways. He explained, according to a transcript, that Windsor Lane and Meadow Lane were easements rather than dedicated streets and, consequently, a potential purchaser of property on the lanes might not be issued clear title.
Mr. Beck brought up the matter of Windsor and Meadow several times:
• At an Aug. 30, 2006 staff meeting he said the streets were not dedicated, according to a meeting transcript, and said fixing the problem would be “…maybe a couple of thousand of bucks.”
• Again on Sept. 7, 2006 during a regular council meeting Mr. Beck said he’d located a surveyor for platting Windsor and Meadow lanes and he would start the research at the court house.
•During a Sept. 26, 2006 conversation with councilmember Laura Ruggiero he said it was possible the title company “…was going to prohibit the sale of the land…”
But public records indicate the streets had been properly dedicated and filed with the county recorder in 2001.
Chief Benton’s report includes copies of the street plat and dedication he received from the recorder’s office on Aug. 25, 2006. Mr. Beck had signed the documents in 2001 and is listed as the notary public. Mr. Johnson had also signed as a councilmember and, along with his wife, as a property owner consenting to the dedication.
And in the village’s own files - in an office just feet away from council chambers in the town hall on Main Street - are more documents indicating the village had taken action in 2001 to dedicate Windsor and Meadow lanes.
Those documents include:
• A copy of an ordinance approved by village council in July, 2001 that changes the name of Bidwell Avenue to Meadow Lane and dedicates Windsor and Meadow lanes as public streets. The ordinance is signed by Edward Herman, who was then president of council, and then mayor Jerald Widmer.
•A statement from the law firm Kuhlman & Beck dated Dec. 11, 2001 for $43.20 – the fee for filing the plat record for Windsor and Meadow lanes with the county.
•A copy of a village check to Kuhlman & Beck dated Dec. 20, 2001 for $43.20.
•A purchase order to the village clerk dated Dec. 6, 2001 which says in handwriting “Kuhlman Beck” and “Record plats Windsor & Meadow” and a warrant for $43.20 that lists “Kuhlman Beck” as the payee and is initialed by members of council’s finance committee.
Mr. Beck, who’d been village solicitor since 1997 on annual or two-year contracts, submitted his resume to Mayor Herman on Oct. 10, 2006 in response to a newspaper advertisement the village placed to fill the solicitor’s position for 2007. He abruptly withdrew his name seven days later.
“… Mayor Herman stopped at my office and informed me…Beck informed Administrator David Johnson he withdrew his name for consideration because he learned he was under investigation by the police department,” the report says.
According to minutes of the Oct. 19 village council meeting, Mr. Beck informed council he inadvertently discovered that Windsor and Meadow lanes were dedicated streets, saying he found them as such after reviewing a new computerized index of property surveys in the recorder’s office. He said the plat may have been indexed incorrectly or it was missed.
But Chief Benton’s report says: “…his comments about straightening out the records in the county recorder’s office was but one more deceptive statement, as the records had been properly filed for years, as I obtained verification of this on Aug. 25, 2006, two months prior to Beck’s fabricated discovery.”
Land deals questioned
The report also questions how real estate transactions were handled.
Those transactions include:
•The sale of village property in 2003 to Widmer & Associates, which was operated by Leslie A. Widmer, the father of then Mayor Jerald Widmer. The solicitor represented the village and was agent for Midland Title Co. and drew title fees from the village over and above his salary as solicitor, which were assessed to the village, the report says.
• The sale of village property in 2003 to a company, Landmaster Properties, LLC, which was owned by the late John Fork, a former Madison Township trustee and father of former village councilman Michael Fork. According to records in the Ohio Secretary of State’s office, Mr. Beck was listed as the statutory agent for Landmaster Properties. Midland Title conducted the closing on the transaction.
• In February, 2005, Michael Fork, not yet a member of council, who was the head of Real Estate Problem Solvers, LLC, proposed three options to village officials for 28.5 acres at the corner of county roads 85 and 42. In a letter to Greg Gerwin, then village administrator, Mr. Fork proposed the village buy the entire parcel; buy 20.5 acres and have 8 acres detached or unannexed from the village, or have the entire parcel detached. (If the property was detached from the village to Madison Township, which has no zoning regulations, it would be easier to develop and septic systems instead of sewer lines could be installed.)
“If the village expresses no interest and does not take any formal steps to complete options 1 or 2 as described by March 1, 2005, option 3 and a full detachment will be pursued,” Mr. Fork’s letter says.
Records in the Secretary of State’s office list Mr. Beck as the statutory agent for Real Estate Problem Solvers.
“At no time did Solicitor Beck disclose to council, and no record of disclosure can be found, where Beck noted his involvement with a company that was obviously taking up an adversarial position with the village,” the chief’s report says.
In March, 2005, Mr. Fork registered the company trade name with the Secretary of State’s office as Right Brain Solutions. A month or so later he was appointed to council.
Chief Benton also questions the sale of property owned by Mr. Beck, his wife, and others to the village in 2000 while he was solicitor and agent for Midland Title.
“He was representing all sides of the equation,” the chief said in a recent interview. ‘’And if there was a defect in the title would there be an incentive to still sell the property?”
Mr. Beck last week said he did inform village officials he would not function as solicitor during the sale of the property co-owned by his wife and others and the village did seek other legal counsel to review the purchase.
“For this transaction I was not the village solicitor and I provided them with no legal advice,” he told The Press.
Mr. Beck said John Fork had used another attorney to establish Landmaster Properties but only retained him as statutory agent for receipt of lawsuits and other documents.
“I did not know Mr. Fork was the high bidder until I was informed by other village officials after the opening of the (sealed) bids,” he said. “At no time in the real estate transaction did I ever provide legal services to any entity or individual other than the Village of Gibsonburg.”
Some of Mr. Beck’s invoices for other legal work come under scrutiny in the report. An invoice for a misdemeanor traffic citation dated June, 2000 shows he billed the village $2,486 for 29 ¼ hours of work, including a half-hour for a phone conference with Chief Benton and writing a letter to an attorney for the defendant. But Chief Benton claims he never had a conference with Mr. Beck and Beck never consulted with the arresting officer.
“I would have never authorized the expenditure of such a large sum of money in regard to a minor misdemeanor complaint in which the maximum penalty was a $100 fine,” the report says. “Further, the case was not prosecuted, rather Beck dismissed the complaint.”
Mr. Beck last week told The Press: “Any bill I submitted to the Village…in the 10 years I was solicitor would have accurately reflected my time worked and the services provided.”
Two invoices Mr. Beck submitted to the village for more than $6,000 in late 2006 were also causing a strain among some village officials. Records indicate Michael Fork, who chaired council’s finance committee, voted in March, 2007 along with other committee members to only reimburse Mr. Beck for out-of-pocket expenses – about $442 – rather than the full amount because there was no purchase order and other issues.
But the report says Mr. Fork for weeks in late 2006 had lobbied Mayor Herman and other councilmembers to have Mr. Beck retained as solicitor the next year and for the full payment of the invoices.
On Nov. 20, 2006, Mr. Fork demanded the chief provide him with documents in connection with the investigation but the chief refused, saying the investigation was ongoing.
The report alleges Mr. Fork used an executive session of council on March 1, 2007 to have the chief disciplined.
“Councilman Fork…misrepresented facts and circumstances to the other members of council and called upon the mayor to file formal charges against me, so council could finish the job,” the report says. “For all practical purposes, Councilman Fork conducted a hearing prior to any charge being filed, and was ready to pronounce sentence once the mayor levied a charge, while denying this officer any due process rights whatsoever.”
In a later conversation with Mayor Herman, the chief said Mr. Fork was interfering with operations of the police department and the probe and the chief felt compelled to seek assistance from an outside law enforcement agency.
Chief Benton consulted with the new village solicitor, Benjamin Elder, in April of last year about the investigation and in August made the decision to file his report with the ethics commission and later with the county prosecutor.
Sandusky County Prosecutor Thomas Stierwalt last week said he wanted to confer with the ethics commission before deciding any action his office might take. A spokesperson for the ethics commission said it is the commission’s policy to not comment on specific cases.
In response to a letter from The Press seeking comment, Mr. Johnson said he would be unable to do so prior to deadline. Mayor Herman also did not respond to a faxed letter seeking comment.
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