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Norton officials, residents at odds as election looms

8/1/2013 - West Side Leader
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By Kathleen Folkerth

NORTON — With an election on the issue of who should pay for sewer projects in the city just days away, city of Norton officials and members of a citizens group continued to spar in the past week.

Residents will head to the polls for the Aug. 6 Special Election to weigh in on Issue No. 1, which is a Citizens4Norton-proposed charter amendment that seeks to eliminate fees for construction of sewer or water lines for city residents and people who own property in Norton, as well as to have assessments for sewer or water lines paid for by the city. The amendment proposes that tie-in fees for sewer or water lines be eliminated as well.

In addition, the proposed charter amendment seeks to cap residential water and sewer bills at $35 a month, unless increased by a majority vote of City Council by not more than 2 percent per year.

City officials and most City Council members oppose the issue, saying it would lead to cuts to services, particularly in the police department, if the city has to cover the full costs of sewer projects.

This week, city officials said they believe an Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) order to proceed on sewers in the Nash Heights neighborhood is imminent.

The city received a letter from the Ohio EPA July 23 that indicated the agency plans to order the project to begin to deal with issues raised from failing septic systems in the neighborhood.

“It’s a letter saying we’re going to get ordered,” said Norton City Council President Don Nicolard (Ward 2). “We don’t know when the orders will show, but they are not kidding around: They are going to make us sewer Nash Heights.”

“The next step will be to install sewers,” said City Administrator Rick Ryland. “There’s just no doubt about it.”

Ryland said he expects the city will receive a consent order from the EPA, but he could not say when that would be.

According to the letter, the Northeast District Office of the Ohio EPA collected samples from Hudson Run and its tributaries and tributaries to Lake Dorothy in the Nash Heights area June 19. The agency said tests showed that the E. coli levels in the streams “far exceed the public health nuisance standard” of the Ohio Administrative Code.

“Therefore, this letter is to serve notice that this case has been referred to our Central Office for enforcement. Director’s Findings and Orders requiring the installation of sanitary sewers to abate the unsanitary conditions will be issued in the near future,” the letter states.

Also last week, the Ohio Elections Commission (OEC) considered complaints against Citizens4Norton raised by Nicolard that alleged the group used false statements in its campaign for the ballot issue.

According to the OEC’s Executive Director Phil Richter, an OEC panel found after the July 25 hearing there was no probable cause of violations regarding false statements. But the panel did find there was probable cause for violation of campaign finance laws, which Nicolard also alleged in the complaint. 

“I’m not happy about the whole situation,” Nicolard said this week. “I’m not happy I had to go to Columbus and that I had to file the complaint. All I’ve ever asked for is a level playing field, and I don’t feel the Citizens4Norton are giving the citizens a level playing field.”

Warner Mendenhall, who serves as legal counsel for Citizens4Norton, said the group is happy the false statement allegations were dismissed.

“Nicolard brought five charges and four were dismissed, which is obviously good,” Mendenhall said. “The one remaining issue is whether or not the citizens group has to file a campaign finance report. It’s not clear to me that they do have to file a campaign finance report as a nonprofit LLC [limited liability corporation]. Under the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, I think they are exempt from filing.”

Mendenhall said the group has considered filing anyway and officially becoming a political action committee.

The OEC set a hearing for Aug. 22 on the campaign finance issue, but Mendenhall said he plans to ask for a continuance because he has a conflict that day.

Nicolard said he’s OK with the hearing taking place after the election.

“They have their rules and their procedures, and they have to do what they have to do,” he said of the OEC. “As long as justice is served, I’ll be happy.”

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