Wednesday, February 06, 2002

Lessons learned from Lebanon ethics woes

Checks and balances in place; incentive scrapped

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LEBANON — The chain of events that led to the city auditor and city attorney retiring two years ago with benefits for which they may not have been eligible could not happen today, officials say.

        “No. 1, there's no early retirement incentive plan any more,” new City Attorney Mark Yurick said. The controversy “illuminated” problems with the plan and prompted its removal from the city's contract with electric employees, he said.

        Mr. Yurick's predecessor, Bill Duning, and former City Auditor Debbie Biggs have been acquitted of criminal charges for taking early retirement buyouts through the electric department in December 1999. Both have said they believed then that council knew about their buyouts, although neither ever claimed to have direct conversations on the subject. Prosecutors on Monday said they would drop charges against two other former city officials accused of aiding and abetting the buyouts.

        The public outcry over the buyouts and the subsequent criminal charges have been a lesson for all city staff.

        “I think in general, city employees are aware of the fact that there are ethics laws and they do apply to them,” said Mr. Yurick, who instigated the Ohio Ethics Commission's buyouts investigation. “It's not worth violating them.”

        Long-time City Manager Richard Hayward, who resigned in late 1998, testified that during his tenure, the lines of communication from Mrs. Biggs and Mr. Duning to council mostly ran through him.

        The city auditor had “no obligation” to make sure council knew an ordinance would fund a buyout for herself, Mr. Hayward said last week during Mrs. Biggs' trial. That was the city manager's job, he said.

        But Lebanon's codified ordinances state: “The following duties are assigned to the City Auditor: Assure that all city expenditures meet the intent of each appropriation (and) that Council was aware of the intent ...”

        Such checks and balances are followed now, current officials say. Sharee Dick, who was promoted to city auditor in December, testified last week that she always explains appropriation transfers and requests with accompanying memos.

        Mrs. Dick and Mr. Yurick both say they don't hesitate to speak directly to council in addition to keeping Acting City Manager Pat Clements informed.

        “It's my job,” Mrs. Dick said.


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