New Court Date for Councilmen

BRIDGEPORT – A new court date was set Wednesday in the case involving two Bridgeport Village Council members accused of voting on legislation that financially benefited them. But questions remain as to just who will serve as prosecutor during the legal proceedings.

During a hearing Wednesday morning, Judge J. Mark Costine scheduled council members David Smith and Ben Lenz to appear in Belmont County Probate Court at 9 a.m. Oct. 2. Last week, Costine issued a restraining order temporarily suspending Smith and Lenz from their elected positions as council members, and Wednesday he extended that order through the Oct. 2 court date.

Costine also recused Bridgeport Village Solicitor Mark Thomas from having to serve as prosecutor in the legal matter involving village council members – a rare duty assigned to village solicitors under Ohio law. Thomas asked that the Belmont County Prosecutor’s Office instead serve as prosecutor in the case.

Ohio Revised Code states that in cases before probate courts involving village officials, “the village solicitor or city director of law shall appear on behalf of the complainant to conduct the prosecution …”

It adds that in situations where there is no village solicitor or city director of law, or if the village solicitor is accused of wrongdoing, the county prosecutor “shall appear on behalf of the complainant to conduct the prosecution.”

Thomas told the court Wednesday that while serving as village solicitor, he has had to offer legal advice on the ethics issue to Smith and Lenz, as well as to other members of Bridgeport Village Council joining in the complaint against the pair.

“Here I am – placed in a difficult position, in my opinion,” Thomas said. “(I was) hired by the village to represent the village in its legal matters … then having discussions with the defendants before the filing and after the filing … then being required to prosecute the defendants. Right there creates a conflict, in my opinion.”

But attorney Michael Shaheen, representing plaintiffs in the case, presented to the court a letter from Belmont County Prosecutor Christopher Berhalter in which he states his belief the statute “did not require his office to become involved” in the matter pertaining to the Bridgeport council members.

Berhalter was reluctant to comment on the case. But he did point to the second part of the statute that states a prosecutor must become involved if there is no village solicitor, or if the village solicitor is accused of wrongdoing.

Bridgeport has a village solicitor in Thomas, and he is not accused of any wrongdoing, Berhalter said.

Shaheen said as a private attorney representing the plaintiffs, he could not take on the role of prosecutor. He noted the plaintiffs indicated to him they agreed with Thomas stepping down as prosecutor.

“Ultimately, we would be looking for the court to advise as to how and who the plaintiffs will be appointed representation,” Shaheen told Costine.

Costine said he would make it part of his judicial order that the Belmont County Prosecutor’s Office appear as prosecutor at the Oct. 2 hearing, or to file an argument with the court explaining while they should be exempt.

Later, Shaheen said his clients were “very pleased” with the Wednesday developments.

“They appreciated (Costine’s) diligence to understand how this affects everyone,” he said.

Bridgeport Village Council canceled its meeting last week when a quorum of members could not be achieved. Thomas said he would advise council to meet soon – prior to its next meeting set for Sept.17 – for the purposes of paying bills and maintaining operations in the village.

Costine said if attendance at council meetings continued to be a problem, he could revisit the idea of the temporary restraining order and perhaps allow Smith and Lenz to attend and vote if necessary.

Neither Smith nor Lenz was present at Wednesday’s court proceedings. They have retained Gregory A. Beck of North Canton, Ohio, as their legal counsel.

Council member Richard Riley has joined in the complaint against Smith and Lenz, bringing the number of Bridgeport residents filing the legal action to 10. The other nine plaintiffs in the case are the daughter of Bridgeport Mayor John Callarik, Shirleann Murad, and James Murad; Callarik’s granddaughter, Mikida Clegg, and William E. Clegg; the mayor’s secretary, Ann Gallagher; and residents John Porter, Chris Tarter, H. James Brubach and Diane Orum.

The complaint alleges that Smith and Lenz – also members of the Bridgeport Fire and Emergency Squad – repeatedly have voted, as members of council, on matters pertaining to the emergency squad, including voting to hire themselves as EMTs. They have self-reported their votes to the Ohio Ethics Commission.

Shirleann Murad, Gallagher, Tarter and Brubach attended Wednesday’s hearing.