During the Feb. 26 meeting of Delaware City Council, Councilman George Hellinger submitted to his fellow council members what he labeled a “transparency initiative.” Hellinger said the transparency initiative derived from several issues he felt needed to be addressed with council members, all with an overall purpose on “peeling back the covers” of the local government for residents.
Four areas of focus are emphasized in Hellinger’s proposed initiative: how executive sessions are conducted, abstention from voting, disclosure of financial campaign contributions, and disclosure of private meetings.
Under the executive session guidelines, Hellinger proposed that the verbiage for how executive sessions are entered contain specific information, per the Ohio Attorney General Sunshine Laws. In addition, he highlighted that straw votes are disallowed by law, discussions in executive session must be limited to specific items listed in the agenda, and executive session should be used sparingly.
As for his guidelines for abstention from voting, Hellinger stated in his proposal that council members’ duties include voting on all items brought forth by council. However, he suggested a conflict of interest is a valid reason to abstain from voting. He added that council members need to qualify their reason for abstention at the time of the vote, and that abstention means removing themselves from all discussion surrounding the issue.
When council discussed Hellinger’s transparency initiative publicly at last Monday’s council meeting, there was little pushback from council members in regard to the executive session guidelines or proper circumstances for abstaining from a vote.
However, Hellinger’s proposed guidelines for the disclosure of campaign contributions and private meetings drew lengthy — and tense — discussion.
Hellinger’s guidelines suggest all council members disclose the identity of a contributing party to campaign funds, as well as the amount of their contributions when an issue being discussed and voted on impacts the contributing party, directly or indirectly.
For private meetings, his initiative suggested meetings held between council members and an individual or party on a particular issue should also be disclosed if that issue is currently in front of council or is anticipated to come to council in the future.
“That is all public record,” Mayor Carolyn Riggle said of campaign contributions. “There are rules that the Board of Elections has put in place, and I think we all follow those rules.”
Riggle said disclosing campaign contributions publicly during the meeting would make the party or individual before council, as well as council members, uncomfortable. “This should have nothing to do with running a city council meeting, in my opinion,” Riggle went on to say.
As for disclosing meetings, Riggle said she wouldn’t have the time to document every meeting she takes part in. She stated, “These are my constituents, and if they say, ‘I want to meet with you,’ I’m going to meet with them. I don’t care if it’s in the grocery store. I don’t care if it’s out to dinner.”
Vice Mayor Kent Shafer said, “We disclose our campaign contributions through the Board of Elections, and we also file with the Ethics Commission anytime there would be any gifts or anything of that nature. So, we’re basically doing what should be done … My concern with this (initiative) is it starts from a premise that if people contribute to our campaigns that we’re somehow beholden to them. I don’t think anybody writes a check to any of our campaign funds with the idea that we’re going to do anything other than make good, informed decisions.”
He went on to say, “I spent 33-and-a-half years with the police department and had all kinds of sensitive assignments with secret government clearance, and I never once had an allegation of misconduct. I was an ethical man then, and I’m an ethical man now. I don’t think I need to defend myself any further than that.”
Asked by Councilwoman Lisa Keller for clarification on why he felt the need to bring the initiative before council, Hellinger reverted back to the narrative of being forthcoming on all accounts for the sake of transparency with the people council serves.
Ultimately, Hellinger told council, “I’m tired of seeing the money in these council seats.” He said it is important for residents to know who council members have received money from in the past and, in his opinion, “know who owns you.”
Hellinger added, “If you’ve taken money, that’s fine. That’s your prerogative. And you can say that’s just because they want good government. I have different opinions on that. I think they know where their bread is buttered.”
Keller told council she wouldn’t have an issue with disclosing any money taken from those who have business in city council. “People who have nothing to hide, hide nothing,” she said.
Councilman Kyle Rohrer reiterated earlier sentiments that council members already follow all laws and regulations regarding campaign contributions.
Keller followed Rohrer’s comments by proposing the question, “Could there ever be a downside to going above and beyond when it comes to transparency?”
In a follow-up discussion with The Gazette, Hellinger referenced the Delaware County Board of Elections campaign finance reports, available as public records on the BOE’s website, which show contributions accepted by public officials, including everyone on city council.
Asked if he held concerns over a “pay-to-play” culture existing within city council, Hellinger responded, “Absolutely,” and later referred to happenings within council as a “good ol’ boy” culture.
Shafer told The Gazette he didn’t believe anybody on council would sell their votes for a $500 or $1,000 contribution. He said that when he first ran for office, many developers came to him to shed light on the troubles they were having with the City of Delaware that they didn’t experience with other governments.
Upon being elected, Shafer said he found those problems to be legitimate, and he worked hard to correct many of them.
“I think the reason (developers) support me is because I understand the business side of development, and I’m going to try and encourage the city to make good decisions,” Shafer said. “I don’t think they feel I owe them anything. I don’t feel I owe them anything.”
He added, “Good development is good for the city, and developers are stakeholders like everyone else. We ought to treat them like stakeholders.”
Shafer went on to say he felt council members are, and have, been doing whatever is necessary in regards to disclosing any and all contributions. However, he said that anytime there is a question brought forward, council needs to be accountable and answer for it.
“I’m happy to do that, and I think everyone else on council is … I think most of us feel we try pretty hard to be transparent and to do things the way they should be done,” he said.