Four elected officials are wreaking havoc on the City of Powell and Liberty Township, where 30,000 of Delaware County’s 200,000 residents live, by acting to decimate the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) provided by the Liberty Township Fire Department (LTFD).
The officials’ actions have shown them unwilling to listen to the majority will of their constituents regarding their responsibility to provide high quality EMS services to the community.
This drama of disrespect toward the community and its fire and EMS professionals was instigated by Melanie Leneghan, a Liberty Township trustee who lost close races last year in the 12th Congressional District primaries.
Leneghan has had a tempestuous relationship with the LTFD over the years, once opposing its tax levy and later trying to dismiss the fire chief, a futile effort whereby the self-described fiscal conservative cost the township upwards of $250,000 and ultimately resulted in the chief being given a better paying job as an assistant chief.
Having gotten her ally Republican Mike Gemperline elected as a trustee in 2017, Leneghan began running the township like her private fiefdom.
She unilaterally sought to gut the township’s EMS and turn it over to the Delaware County EMS. This is in spite of the fact that local voters overwhelmingly passed a 5-year tax levy in 2017 to fully fund LTFD’s EMS. The cutbacks would cause a major drop in the quality of care.
Hundreds of outraged local citizens, led by the group Save Our Services (SOS), are turning out at trustee meetings to support the LTFD, oppose the changes, and back the reappointment of the longtime LTFD EMS medical director Dr. Warren Yamarick. Yet Leneghan and Gemperline removed Yamarick.
The Delaware Gazette and Columbus media outlets are blanketing central Ohio with coverage of a township unable to govern itself.
Leneghan has ignored the wishes of the people she was elected to represent, she has flaunted her power, she has had complaining citizens, including Yamarick, ejected from trustee meetings, and she has cut off citizens who dare to speak against her undemocratic ways.
Her intransigence has left the good people of Powell and Liberty Township with no recourse other than legal action. The City of Powell has sent a cease and desist letter. Yamarick has requested a public hearing and sued in federal court that his civil rights were violated. Citizens are planning to circulate recall petitions that could ultimately lead to the removal of Leneghan and Gemperline from office. However, trustees ordinarily can only be removed for wrong-doing after a lengthy petition-passing and judicial process.
Leneghan and Gemperline’s partners in this example of how not to serve as a public official are Delaware County Commissioners Gary Merrell and Jeff Benton, who voted in favor of the takeover resolution.
Benton and Merrell, like Leneghan and Gemperline, are disregarding the will of the people of Powell and Liberty Township, 75 percent of whom voted for a fire/EMS tax levy in 2017, and they are ignoring the sentiment of Powell residents, 80 percent of whom told the 2018 Community Attitude Survey they were “very satisfied” with LTFD services.
Rather than put more money from the half-cent county sales tax passed in the 1970s for EMS into the LTFD, Merrell and Benton were collaborating with Leneghan and Gemperline to shift the money to the rival Delaware County EMS and its two-person crews that would result in the layoff of as many as two dozen LTFD personnel, who are cross-trained in fire fighting and EMS. LTFD always sends highly trained three-person crews on EMS runs.
In early February, the rush to liquidate the LTFD EMS was delayed temporarily when Merrell joined with commissioner Barb Lewis to vote to suspend the takeover resolution. Trustee Shyra Eichhorn was instrumental in achieving the delay, while a new study takes place.
However, the suspension could be lifted at any time. LTFD EMS supporters remain vigilant and worried about the future.
Meanwhile, most residents of Powell and Liberty Township wonder what they did wrong to be “represented” by people so disrespectful of their wishes.
Leneghan is up for re-election this year, Merrell and Benton in 2020, and Gemperline in 2021. Each likely will be opposed.
The EMS controversy has drawn major media coverage in part because it runs counter to the community’s image as pleasant and well-governed.
It’s been a big black eye for Powell, Liberty Township and Delaware County.
A resident of Liberty Township since 2008, John Hartman is an emeritus professor of journalism at Central Michigan University and a member of the CMU Journalism Hall of Fame. He formerly served on the township board of zoning appeals and as an alternate on the township zoning board. He was a member of the Bowling Green Board of Education from 1978-1997. This column contains material originally published in the February edition of the Columbus Free Press.