YELLOW CREEK - Use of township equipment on private property that prompted heated rhetoric at a trustees meeting has been settled for now.
Yellow Creek Township trustee Kenny Biacco met with Assistant County Prosecutor Andy Beech to address the controversy that arose during the Dec. 10 trustees meeting over the actions of township roads foreman Gary Mitchell. (Beech also serves as legal advisor to the township.)
Mitchell had used township equipment and materials to clear ice from the parking lot of Yellow Creek Presbyterian Church on Dec. 7. He argued that the icy conditions had constituted a potential hazard to people attending a funeral at the church.
Despite its name, the church actually resides approximately one mile inside Madison Township, on State Route 45.
According to Biacco, Beech's legal opinion was that Mitchell had acted improperly in doing so. "Mr. DeJane was 100 percent correct. We should not have been on that property," Biacco said, referring to Yellow Creek resident Tom DeJane, who had voiced the strongest opposition to Mitchell's actions at the Dec. 10 trustees meeting.
In addition, Beech said that the township would have been liable if a mishap had occurred - accidental damage to a parked vehicle or an injury sustained - while Mitchell was operating township equipment at the church.
Acknowledging the trouble it may have caused to people attending the funeral at the church, the icy parking lot was not what Biacco called "a life-or-death situation," and did not justify the use of township equipment or resources on private property.
Biacco reiterated that it is the responsibility of Yellow Creek Presbyterian Church to care for its own property. He says that if Mitchell had time to drive to the Yellow Creek Township building on Oak Ridge Road, get the township's truck and drive back to the church, then the person the church has plow the parking lot should have had ample time to get more salt, slag or whatever materials were lacking that day.
"It was a good gesture, but what are we facing here? Where do you draw the line?" Biacco said.
Outgoing trustee Larry Brewer agreed, saying the main concern was ensuring that the township was protected legally. He also stressed that Mitchell and his colleague, road worker Randy Matthias, need to go through the proper channels when confronted with such an issue rather than acting on their own.
"They are the workers, and we as trustees - Kenny, Glenn and myself - are the bosses, so to speak," Brewer said. "These guys work for the board as well as for the township."
Acting trustee Glenn McKenzie had strongly defended Mitchell's actions at the Dec. 10 meeting, but says he accepts Beech's legal counsel on the issue. "I still believe [Mitchell] was right, but I can't jeopardize the welfare of the township for this decision," McKenzie said. Nevertheless, he says he looks forward to trustees coming up with a firm policy on the subject and moving forward with other issues.
For his part, Mitchell says he does not regret having taken the action that he did. "It was a moment that somebody needed something," he said. "It wasn't a critical decision, it was just a helpful decision."
Mitchell says he wasn't aware that his work on the church parking lot had been a problem until the meeting of Dec. 10, when DeJane brought it to the board's attention. When asked if the church retains anyone specifically to take care of the parking lot, he said he doesn't know.
Unbeknownst to board members then was how Mitchell was alerted to the situation at the church in the first place. In fact, Mitchell works part-time for the cemetery at Yellow Creek Presbyterian, digging the graves with his own excavating equipment. "There's nothing [trustees] can say about that, because that's on my own personal time," he said, though he asserted that Brewer has questioned him about work done for private clients with his own equipment when off-duty from the township.
In other business, Biacco said that following the appointment of a trustee to replace the late David Boyd, who died on Nov. 14 after being re-elected to the board, trustees will pursue the creation of a township policy/procedure manual for employees. Presently, there are only rules that have been adopted piecemeal, then are forgotten in the minutes of past meetings, he said.
Letters of interest are being accepted from township residents who are interested in filling the empty seat on the board of trustees. They should be addressed to township fiscal officer Debbie Lyle, P.O. Box 584, Wellsville, Ohio, 43968. The deadline is Jan. 24.
The next trustees meeting is scheduled for Jan. 14.