Tuesday, February 20, 2001

Civic club suffers from city's battles

By Cindy Schroeder
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        VILLA HILLS — During the past year, political infighting in this suburban Kenton County city has led to criminal investigations and threats of lawsuits. Now it's threatening the activities of the Villa Hills Civic Club.

        The club sponsors Easter egg hunts, fishing tournaments and Knothole baseball.

        Normally, by this time of year, the Villa Hills Civic Club — an independent nonprofit organization — has about 900 families signed up as dues-paying members.

        Because of the recent political turmoil, however, only about 400 families have sent in their annual $15 membership dues, said Ralph Mueller, a director of the civic club. And many of those who did not join returned their applications with notes blaming the city's political situation, he said.

        “They're mad at what's going on in City Hall, and it's costing us memberships and

        money,” Mr. Mueller said of the more than 50 percent drop in membership.

        “We're completely independent of the city, but a lot of residents don't realize that. We're being tied in with something that we're not a part of.”

        Ed Nutini, civic club president, said that his volunteer organization manages 25 acres around the civic club, with a fishing lake and fields for soccer, softball and Knothole teams.

        If memberships — which make up 25 percent of the club's budget — continue to lag, the club may be forced to raise its dues, or cut some of its fall and winter activities, Mr. Nutini said.

        “I'm not sure what we'll do, because we've never had to deal with this before,” Mr. Nutini said. “Our building is right next door to the city building, so everyone associates us with the city. Right now, there are a lot of ill feelings toward the city, and we seem to be getting the backlash from that.”

        During the past year, Mayor Steve Clark and City Council have clashed over a number of issues, including the mayor's Dec. 28 firing of the longtime police chief and city clerk.

        More than 200 residents — many of them supporters of the fired employees — have packed recent city council meetings, and a citizens group is demanding their reinstatement.

        The firing of the two veteran employees followed last year's state audit that questioned $44,000 in spending by city officials, and a criminal investigation into whether Mr. Clark improperly spent city funds. The latter probe, involving the mayor's handling of a $25,025 check for sidewalk repairs, ended last fall with no charges brought.

        Founded in 1961, the Villa Hills Civic Club sponsors dozens of events throughout the year. They include an annual children's Easter egg hunt, monthly euchre tournaments, summer and fall golf outings, monthly family steak nights, a fall pig roast, a community Halloween party and visits from Santa at Christmas.

        As fields already have been scheduled for spring and early summer, activities, such as Knothole and softball will not be affected by this year's drop in memberships, Mr. Nutini said.

        In other recent Villa Hills developments:

        • Steve Wolnitzek, the lawyer for fired police chief Michael “Corky” Brown, has told Phil Taliaferro, a lawyer hired by council to investigate the police chief's firing by Mr. Clark, that time is quickly running out to resolve a dispute over the 17-year chief's dismissal.

        “Our hope is that it can be resolved, but reality is indicating it cannot,” Mr. Wolnitzek wrote in a Feb. 14 letter to Mr. Taliaferro. “If matters are not resolved by the end of this month, we will have little option but to proceed with (whistleblower) litigation against Mr. Clark, both in his official and individual capacity.”

        • The Kentucky Attorney General's office told Mr. Clark that it cannot rule on whether Villa Hills City Council violated the open meetings law when it met in special session on Jan. 6 to hire Mr. Taliaferro, because the mayor's appeal was not filed in accordance with state law.

        In her Feb. 16 letter, Amye L. Bensenhaver, assistant attorney general, said the mayor should first submit his written complaint to city council, as that office had suggested, when he sought a previous opinion on a possible violation of the law.

        If council denies the allegations in Mr. Clark's complaint, Ms. Bensenhaver wrote that he could appeal to the attorney general's office, or challenge council's actions in circuit court.


               For information on the Villa Hills Civic Club, call (859) 341-7227, or log onto www.villahills.com for a copy of the membership application. Membership applications can be sent to the Villa Hills Civic Club, 729 Rogers Road, Villa Hills, KY 41017. Annual family memberships cost $15, and associate memberships for individuals who have moved out of the city are $5.


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