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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

North Royalton council says council president may have conflicting interests; council president says it’s all just politics

NORTH ROYALTON, Ohio – City Council may ask voters to amend the municipal charter so that council members can’t hold paying jobs with any other public entity inside or outside of North Royalton.

The issue came up July 18 at a special meeting of council’s Review and Oversight Committee. Specifically, council members questioned whether Paul Marnecheck should continue working as Brook Park’s economic development commissioner while also serving as North Royalton’s council president.

Some council members said Marnecheck’s dual roles come with conflicting responsibilities. In Brook Park, his job involves attracting new businesses to that city. Meanwhile, in North Royalton, the council president sits on the city’s Planning Commission, which approves plans for businesses moving into town.

“In my view, it’s not appropriate for any elected representative . . . to simultaneously hold public employment in a position of authority within a nearby government entity that could compete with ours for our business and business opportunities,” Councilman Michael Wos told cleveland.com in an email.

“This could create a conflict of interest for prospective businesses and economic opportunities, which I find problematic,” Wos said.

Council had considered placing a charter amendment prohibiting its members from working for out-of-town public entities on the Nov. 7 ballot. Instead, council tabled the measure, deciding to resume the discussion next year so they could refine the proposed policy.

Marnecheck, who is seeking re-election to his council president seat this fall, and his supporters believe other council members were politically motivated in proposing the charter amendment.

Councilman Jeremy Dietrich is running against Marnecheck for the council president position.

“I believe it was motivated by individuals who do not want to see me achieve a second term as president of city council and who hoped to prevent me from finishing my current term of office,” Marnecheck told cleveland.com in an email.

“This charter amendment, if approved by the voters (in November), would have immediately removed me from office,” Marnecheck said. “It is unfortunate that it appears some members of council did not understand the legislation well enough to know this fact.”

On Sept. 5, more than 60 residents showed up for another meeting of the review and oversight committee, which again gathered to discuss the proposed charter amendment. Many of the residents voiced support for Marnecheck and opposed the charter change.

Other residents wrote emails asking council members to nix the charter amendment.

“I strongly advise you to vote no on this legislation tonight and in the future if applicable,” resident John Higgins, a candidate for the North Royalton school board, wrote Councilwoman Joanne Krejci.  “The optics on this are very bad.

“I’ve read many residents complain that this appears to be a power grab by city council members that are members of the North Royalton Republican Club,” Higgins wrote Krejci. “At this time, that isn’t my personal opinion, but I have to admit, the timing of this seems at best suspicious.”

Every member of council, except for Marnecheck, are Republicans, including Dietrich, his election opponent.

Wos said it’s not appropriate for any North Royalton elected official, regardless of political party, to hold public employment elsewhere.

“Our city positions are all nonpartisan and that is how we legislate,” Krejci added.

Potential conflicts

Marnecheck was elected council president in 2019. The city of Brook Park hired him as economic development commissioner in February 2022.

Marnecheck said that before he accepted the Brook Park position, he consulted with North Royalton Law Director Tom Kelly.

“He (Kelly) agreed there is not an inherent conflict of interest,” Marnecheck said.

“In my time serving on council, I have always had full-time employment, as have many of my fellow councilmembers,” Marnecheck said. “I have always communicated with our Law Department regarding possible conflicts and will continue to do so.”

In June 2023, Dietrich, who had pulled petitions to run for council president against Marnecheck, called Dana Schroeder, council’s director of legislative services, asking if and how charters in other cities addressed council members working for outside public entities.

Subsequently, Dietrich asked Schroeder to schedule a special review and oversight committee meeting for July 18. Dietrich is chairman of the committee.

At the meeting, it was Wos, not Dietrich, who introduced the conflict-of-interest topic. Wos said elected officials having a job with a separate public body might share privileged information gained from one public position with the other entity. In this way, the elected official would give one of the public bodies an unfair advantage.

Also, the elected official might have competing loyalties, Wos said. The official might face pressure from one public body to take an action that would not be in the best interest of the other public body.

Dietrich and Councilman John Nickell agreed with Wos. Nickell said he was happy that Marnecheck landed a job with Brook Park, but added that both North Royalton and Brook Park have large undeveloped industrial properties where businesses can locate.

Nickell said he wasn’t insinuating that Marnecheck had done anything wrong or worked against North Royalton’s interest while favoring Brook Park. However, Nickell suggested that the potential for a conflict of interest existed for him.

Nickell himself was previously on council while working for the North Royalton City Schools. However, Wos said working for a school district wasn’t a problem, since such a role was focused on education and supporting pupils, which is different from the city’s priorities.

Wos, Dietrich and Nickell said they were not targeting Marnecheck specifically. They said they just wanted to address potential conflicts of interests among their members.

However, Dietrich and Nickell said residents have asked them how they could allow Marnecheck to serve on council and work full time for Brook Park simultaneously.

At the meeting, Marnecheck said he was taken by surprise. He indicated that he didn’t know the committee was planning to discuss the topic.

A matter of timing

When asked why council had raised the topic in July, more than a year after Marnecheck was hired in Brook Park, Wos said council had previously sought the Law Department’s opinion on the matter, although he didn’t say who asked or when.

“Concerns arose as council members, including myself, received inquiries from residents,” Wos told cleveland.com. “These inquiries centered on the ethical issues surrounding the council president simultaneously holding a significant economic development role in a neighboring city within (Cuyahoga) County.”

Krejci said council started having discussions about the issue around the time Marnecheck was hired.

“Unfortunately, the timing on when a draft (of the charter amendment) was presented was not optimal,” Krejci said.

Wos said his draft of the charter amendment needed “significant improvement” before it could move forward. He said the issue continues to warrant “in-depth” discussion.

“It (the draft amendment) was overly restrictive and wouldn’t have passed council as is,” Wos said. “This underscores the importance of committee meetings for addressing and refining legislation.

“Personally, I favor a model like Beachwood’s, which permits public employees to hold elected office but restricts incompatible public employment, determined by Ohio’s conflict of interest definition and/or a two-thirds council majority vote,” Wos says.

Marnecheck said that since he was hired in Brook Park, he never faced a situation in which he had to choose between Brook Park and North Royalton in terms of a business looking for a location.

“North Royalton has a great economic development commissioner in Tom Jordan who would handle this from the North Royalton position,” Marnecheck said. “I would rely on my (North Royalton) law department to guide me over a need to abstain from any meetings or decision.”

Marnecheck said he also hasn’t been in a position where he could hurt one city by supporting the other. He said he never has shared confidential information discussed in council executive sessions with Brook Park and never would.

“This also could be asked of any member of council with a full time job,” Marnecheck said. “We all take an oath to uphold the laws of North Royalton and the state of Ohio. I am sure we could think of hypothetical situations that could involve any of my colleagues’ employers too.

“Besides, it is against the law to discuss information gathered in executive session outside of the executive session,” Marnecheck said.

Marnecheck said the more than 60 residents who showed up Sept. 5 made a difference in keeping the charter amendment off the Nov. 7 ballot.

“This could have been handled in a much more respectful and productive way,” Marnecheck said, referring to his council colleagues.

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