ELYRIA — The Rural Lorain County Water Authority board was wrong to remove Pittsfield Township Trustee Mark McConnell earlier this year, county Common Pleas Judge James Burge ruled Friday.
Burge’s decision leaves in place a similar ruling he made in October that saw McConnell returned to his seat on the board until a second hearing could be held on the dispute. That hearing, during which Burge implied he was leaning toward keeping McConnell on the board, took place Tuesday.
“I really appreciate Judge Burge’s ruling. I think it was a victory for the people,” McConnell said Friday. “Hopefully the representatives on the water board will feel a little more secure and feel they can offer their opinions without fear of reprisal.”
Several of McConnell’s allies have expressed concern that they too could be removed from the board under the same bylaw that the majority of board members used to oust McConnell twice in May.
During the first vote May 15, conducted by secret ballot, McConnell was removed by a vote of 17-9. After the legality of the secret ballots was questioned, the water board held a second vote a week later and McConnell was removed again by a roll call vote of 13-11.
An opinion by Rural Water attorney Dennis O’Toole later concluded that although he believed the secret ballots used were legal, using them in the vote to oust McConnell was a violation of the organization’s bylaws.
McConnell had been accused of disparaging a fellow board member, whom he suspected may have had an unlawful interest in a public contract and for lobbying to have fellow board members removed. McConnell has denied wrongdoing.
After the second vote to remove him, McConnell and Pittsfield Township, along with nine other townships, challenged the legality of the bylaws. They contended that state law only allowed the appointing authority, which in McConnell’s case was Pittsfield Township, had the power to remove a board member.
Burge agreed with that position.
“Because the Rural Lorain County Water Authority is not the appointing authority that selected (McConnell) as a trustee, the Authority did not have the power to remove him as a duly appointed trustee,” Burge wrote.
He also concluded that the water board didn’t have the power to appoint Pittsfield Township Trustee Steve Magyar to replace McConnell. Magyar resigned from the water board in October to smooth the way for McConnell’s return.
Matt Dooley, an attorney for Rural Water, said in a statement that Burge’s ruling didn’t come as a surprise.
“The decision is consistent with the court’s comments at the injunction hearing,” Dooley said. “We intend to thoroughly review the factual and legal conclusions with RLCWA and discuss what additional action, if any, RLCWA desires to take.”
Burge also barred the water board, which has been sharply divided on a number of issues this year, from removing any other member through the same mechanism used to expel McConnell.
Amherst Township Trustee Dennis Abraham, who serves as vice president of the water board and was among those pushing for McConnell’s removal, declined to comment on Burge’s decision Friday.
“I don’t want to focus on the legalities,” Abraham said. “I want to focus now on pulling the board back together.”
Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or firstname.lastname@example.org.