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Residents file class action lawsuit against Norton

3/14/2013 - West Side Leader
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By Ariel Hakim

Sewer surcharge cited as unlawful

NORTON — The city of Norton was served with a class action lawsuit last week regarding the city allegedly charging an unlawful fee to residents who reside in the Spring Avenue Outfall area.

According to the suit filed with the Summit County Clerk of Courts, three Gardner Boulevard residents filed the civil complaint Feb. 25.

The lawsuit, brought by Tim and Connie Adair and Paul Ritzman, challenges the city’s alleged unlawful collection of fees, which they claim violates their own and more than 600 others’ federal and state constitutional rights. The affected group, the suit alleges, are city residents whose sewage is transported through Summit County sewer lines and have their waste treated by Barberton’s wastewater treatment plant.

They claim the fees affect a putative class of people who reside in the Spring Avenue Outfall area, who have been responsible for surcharges of 27.5 percent more than the current user rate the city of Barberton charges Barberton residents, according to the complaint.

Further, the suit alleges the charges were to be put into Norton’s Sanitary Sewer Utility Fund, but residents receive no service associated with the fee.

“We are reviewing the complaint,” said the city’s Law Director Peter Kostoff at Norton City Council’s March 11 meeting. “This case, like any other, will have the opportunity to have its day in court.”

Also, the city received several citizen petitions March 8 to place a proposed charter amendment before voters, according to city Finance Director Laura Starosta.

The city has submitted the petitions to the Summit County Board of Elections to verify signatures, she said.

The proposed amendment would appear, at the soonest, on the ballot in August, according to city officials.

The proposed change to Norton’s charter is in regards to sewer and water rate assessments, connections fees and rate limits.

It seeks to eliminate fees for construction of sewer or water lines within the city, as well as to have assessments for sewer or water lines paid for by the city. Also, the amendment proposes that Norton residents not “be charged to tie into, connect to, or otherwise access sewer or water lines,” within city limits. In addition, the charter amendment would cap residential water and sewer bills at $35 a month, unless increased by a majority vote of Council by not more than 2 percent per year.

Council’s agenda March 11 included a first reading of legislation to award a contract to Four Corners Cleaning Inc., a Barberton company, for janitorial services at select municipal buildings.

During Council’s work session March 4, Administrative Officer Rick Ryland noted the city’s dissatisfaction with Romaster, the current cleaning company, according to minutes from that meeting.

However, Council was split on whether to put the new cleaning contract on the March 11 agenda for a first reading, with Council members Charlotte Whipkey (at large) and Council President Don Nicolard (Ward 2) voting against the action.

While Council did conduct a first reading of the legislation that evening, they also took into account statements from Mitch Roman, owner of Romaster, who appeared before Council.

Roman said his company, which is located in Norton, has been cleaning city properties for approximately 16 years, a contract which currently includes three days per week at the Service Department, three days at the administration and police offices, and two days at the Community Center.

The company receives $1,100 a month for around 90 hours of work, said Roman.

“Nobody approached me with anything or called our office with a complaint,” he said.

Councilman Todd Bergstrom (Ward 1) suggested Council take the topic back to its next work session.

Bergstrom also said he would like to see a paper trail showing Roman’s company was approached by the city with issues and had an opportunity to change.

“I checked — there isn’t any paper trail,” said Whipkey.

Also, he said he would like to see a performance evaluation written into the contract, said Bergstrom.

“I think this does warrant a little more discussion,” agreed Councilman Scott Pelot (at large).

Council members also expressed their desire for Roman to be included in the discussion at Council’s next work session March 18.

Also at the meeting, resident Dennis Pierson echoed a request made by Whipkey at Council’s Feb. 25 meeting for Kostoff’s resignation, citing different reasoning.

Whipkey explained, however, the public "will not hear another peep" from her asking for Kostoff's resignation based on prior discussions. Nicolard asked Kostoff to read an opinion prior to the Council meeting, and it was not read in a public way, she said. Her original complaint against Kostoff was that he violated attorney/client privilege, according to minutes from that meeting.

Pierson stated the city paid nearly $10,000 for a paving project to a company on which Kostoff’s wife sits on the board of directors, which he called “unethical.”

Commenting on this after the meeting, Kostoff said he did not recall the contract in question.

“I don’t award contracts,” he said.

Also at the meeting, Council approved proposed legislation, with each item passed with a 6-0 vote (Ward 4 Councilman John Conklin had an excused absence from the meeting.), including:

  • an ordinance adopting various insurance plans for various periods for city employees;
  • an ordinance authorizing the lease/purchase of a 2013 Kobelco 80 series excavator for the Service Department, not to exceed $99,000. Whipkey said the stated cost is before a trade-in of a Grade All machine, and the purchase is to be paid off in six years through a lease option;
  • an ordinance awarding a contract to Mark Campbell Construction LLC for the construction of the sanitary sewer improvement project for the Norton maintenance facility at a cost not to exceed $84,500;
  • a resolution, following a public hearing during which there were no objections raised, approving the placement of farmland at 3330 Reimer Road in an agricultural district; and
  • an ordinance authorizing the mayor or his designee to enter into an agreement with the Ohio Department of Transportation for mowing along Interstate 76 for the 2013 season.

Council next plans to meet for a work session March 18 and for its regular meeting March 25, both at 7 p.m. in Council Chambers at the Safety-Administration Building, 4060 Columbia Woods Drive.

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