NELSONVILLE, Ohio (WCMH) — When Nelsonville City Council meets Monday night, it should be able to establish a quorum and conduct official business.
The same couldn’t be said a week ago, when four public resignation announcements — a majority of which were short-lived — meant only three members sat on the body that budgets and legislates for the rural southeast Ohio city of 5,000 residents.
“If they can gather, have a quorum, and pass — or review — legislation, that’s a good sign,” said Nelsonville City Auditor Taylor Sappington. “But I think part of this process is going to be like chapters of a book. We may just be closing the first chapter of what developed last week and this weekend.”
Four members resign, but by Monday, three change their minds
The resignations went out one by one late last week.
The first notice came from Councilmember Nick Smith on Wednesday, March 29, and then President Tony Dunfee said Thursday afternoon he would no longer serve, Vice President Gregg Clement said. Clement assumed Dunfee’s duties, until he resigned late last Friday afternoon, and hours later, Councilmember Neil Sommers said he would exit, too.
By Saturday, all four had all individually informed their colleagues they would no longer serve, leaving the Council without a quorum and technically unable to manage city business.
“Over the weekend, after realizing where Nelsonville was left at, and I care about the community and the citizens, I made the decision and rescinded my resignation,” Clement said.
Dunfee and Sommers also withdrew their resignation letters Monday, he said, which would bring the Council back to six of its city-chartered seven members. Procedurally, Clement said the Nelsonville city attorney informed him that because their resignations had not been officially voted on, they would be able to retain their roles.
Ohio Sunshine laws may have been shirked, auditor alleges
But in the interim, Sappington said he is concerned the three then-remaining members met over the weekend to talk about how the body would move forward. In his eyes, that would violate Ohio Sunshine Laws — the state mandates that any and all meetings of governing bodies be held publicly.
Councilmember Dan Sherman denied that he and councilmembers Nancy Sonick and Glennda Tingle hammered out anything over that time.
“I’ve not met with those ladies. We did have individual phone calls, or individual concerns just about, ‘Hey, what do we do next?’” Sherman said. “The three of us didn’t meet.”
Sonick and Tingle did not respond to an email requesting comment.
Sappington plans to further investigate whether Sunshine Law transgressions took place and said he submitted public records requests to the Council over the weekend. Three of those were denied by the body Wednesday for being overly broad, Sappington said.
Revolving door, dysfunction hurting city
Justin Booth left Nelsonville City Council in January, months before the weekend’s flurry of momentary goodbyes. Booth’s resignation hinged on someone he described as a “rogue” councilmember: Sherman.
Sherman’s conduct — which Booth said ranged from Sherman’s personal interests swaying his decision-making to a time where he cussed at the city’s fire chief at a public meeting — ultimately drove Booth to leave, he said.
Clement declined to comment on whether his initial resignation was because of a single member but cited an “inability to work together” with remaining members.
“I have no agenda,” Sherman said. “They can’t blame me for everybody quitting — I’m one person, one vote.”
For the 22 years he has lived in Nelsonville, Booth said the Council has been hindered by instability.
“A lot of it is small town politics. This one doesn’t like that one, or we’ve got alignments between a councilperson and someone who works in the city, which then brings in personal motivations,” Booth said. “It’s just, it’s a circus.”
By Clement’s estimate, somewhere between 16 and 18 members of Nelsonville City Council have left — either because other members voted to remove them or because they resigned — since 2018. “I don’t have the exact number. I sat down and tried to put it on paper,” he said.
Nelsonville does not have an elected mayor but a city manager who is chosen and voted on by Council. The Council voted Wednesday — before the resignations rolled in — to make Bernie Roell its newest city manager.
Roell is the fifth Nelsonville resident since January who has been tasked with leading the city.
Add that to four code enforcement officers and three permanent police chiefs who have come and gone in recent years, and Clement said it’s clear the city government has gone through “some turmoil” — and it is certainly not out of the woods, even with a still mostly full Council.
Grant in question
As the dust settles, a grant worth more than $1 million that would have funded sidewalk rehabilitation, lighting and tree removal along Washington Street is still hanging in the balance.
Nelsonville city leaders learned amid the chaos late last week the Survivor Advocacy Outreach Program would not continue negotiations on the grant.
The program’s executive director wrote in an email the uncertainty “makes it evident to us that the city will lack the bandwidth” to take on the project in the right timeframe, according to email records.
That email was fairly black-and-white, at least to Sappington and Clement, about the city’s status with the grant. But the program was initially awarded the grant money by the Governor’s Office of Appalachia, which said it gets the last word.
“Funding determinations and project revisions are ultimately the decision of the Department of Development, not an eligible lead applicant of a grant award,“ a spokesperson wrote in an email statement. “Survivor Advocacy Outreach Program (SAOP) has not notified GOA of any intent to remove subgrantees or eligible activities from the project.“
SAOP did not respond to two requests for comment as of Thursday night.
In longtime resident Lori Crook’s eyes, the dysfunction has deterred most other residents from considering a run for Council. She is heartened, however, by how much public engagement she still sees among them.
“I love the sort of rough and tumble culture of this town,” Crook said.
On Wednesday afternoon, Booth — who criticized what he sees as an outsized role the Council has in guiding the city’s direction — submitted a letter of interest to run for a seat on Nelsonville City Council in the fall.