Monday, January 24, 2000

Electric dept. buyouts: Council asleep at switch

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Apparently, some city employees in Lebanon have never heard the term “conflict of interest.”

        That's the only way I can explain how three of the city's highest-paid employees helped themselves to early-retirement buyout packages costing taxpayers nearly $500,000.

        And they did it with the asleep-at-the-wheel blessing of Lebanon's city council.

        The story, brought to light by Enquirer reporter Richelle Thompson, reveals a horrible lack of accountability in the use of tax dollars in the Warren County seat.

        What went on may not be illegal. And everyone may eventually skate on the ethical concerns brought to the Ohio Ethics Commission.

        But whether or not the retirees are chastised, I think the idea that city employees can approve their own and/or each others' retirement packages with no questions asked is outrageous.

        The three retired Lebanon employees are former City Auditor Debbie Biggs, former City Attorney Bill Duning and Robert Newton, former deputy director of the city's electric department.

        Their retirements took effect Dec. 31. But before they cleared out their desks and went out the door, two of the three wrote up and signed off on their own retirement payouts, and all three had them drawn from a fund set aside for the city's electric department workers.

        City Auditor Biggs' check was $110,565.

        City Attorney Duning's was $206,302.

        Electric Department Deputy Director Robert Newton — the only one of the three who worked in that department — received $169,549.

        That's a total of $486,416, if you want to keep count. And anyone who does would be doing more than Lebanon City Council.

        The payout was approved by a unanimous vote at a Dec. 28 council meeting. I use the term “approved” loosely. When council approved a transfer of $450,000 into the electric department fund to cover the retirement buyouts, no one bothered to ask for details.

Conflict of interest
        Of the three employees, only Robert Newton was definitely eligible for the retirement package. Trouble is, he approved his own buyout. Sounds to me like a conflict of interest.

        The city auditor and the city attorney are not electric department employees. But they justified taking advantage of the department's early-retirement package because they did so much work with the people who light up Lebanon.

        “I'm their chief financial officer,” the former auditor has said. “I handle payroll and take care of their books. I even sign their (early-retirement incentive) plans.”

        She even signed her own buyout plan. Conflict of interest?

        These were experienced high-level employees, making between $55,000 and $87,000 a year. Each served Lebanon for at least 27 years.

        I think they should have known better.

Wake-up call
        Lebanon's city council shares some of the blame in this messy deal. Its members failed to ask enough questions before approving — by a unanimous vote — a measure transferring funds to the electric department's budget to cover the buyouts.

        All members of this or any other city council are well within their rights to demand specific answers to the most basic questions. Why is this being done? Who gets the money? Who approved this?

        The money belongs to the people. Taxpayers, as well as customers paying their electric bills in Lebanon, have the right to know how public money is spent. They also have the right to expect council to be their watchdog.

        Council members are elected to serve the public, and a big part of that service is fiscal responsibility.

        Beyond the details of this flap, all of which the Ohio Ethics Commission has been asked to investigate, there is the issue of credibility.

        Citizens in Lebanon have to wonder. If bureaucrats can sign off on their own retirement buyouts, and council approves a half-million dollars for something it does not understand, what else is going on behind the scenes on Broadway?

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.