Anger boils over in Amelia

Renee Gerber, former councilwoman and organizer for dissolving the village, is arrested by Officer Shane Olson at the village’s council meeting on June 29, 2018 for talking during the meeting and then refusing to leave. Gerber was not charged.

Former councilwoman arrested at special council meeting to head off dissolving village

By Brett Milam

At a raucous special council meeting in the village of Amelia, some residents were escorted out by police, others voluntarily left after expletive tirades and one woman, a former member of council, ended up in handcuffs.

On June 29, council was set to meet at a sweltering 4 p.m to take action to amend the procedures needed to dissolve the village. By 3:45, the small administration building office was filling up with residents. By 3:55, it was standing-room only, with people standing in the hallways trying to get a look at council.

However, the boiling anger and tension between residents and council started long before that June 29 meeting. It started when the village enacted a 1 percent earnings tax after one reading and through suspending the Ohio Revised Code as an “emergency measure.”

Village residents were unhappy with the move, citing its lack of transparency and accountability to let residents have a voice. Most residents didn’t even know about the income tax until a Facebook post by the village in April. Part of that was due to a mailing error from the Regional Income Tax Authority, who was to explain how the tax works through a letter in the mail.

So, the only recourse residents felt they had was to dissolve the village through petitions and get the measure on the November ballot.

This is not the first time such a two-act play has played out: In 2008, Amelia Residents for Fiscal Responsibility, a group of Amelia residents who organized to dissolve the, at the time, 108-year-old village, garnered 450 signatures and delivered them t council.

The move was in response to council proposing a 1 percent earned-income tax.

However, the Clermont County Board of Elections rejected the bid to place the dissolution of the village on the November ballot because they ruled the petitions did not contain enough valid signatures. Of the 468 signatures, 189 were considered invalid. That brought them below the 300-signature threshold needed to get on the ballot.

Invalid meant the signatures were from those who weren’t registered village electors, according to Leroy Ellington, the mayor at the time.

In a special election on May 5, 2009, the measure would make it on the ballot, but would fail, with 865 voters voting no and 401 voting yes.

The 1 percent income tax was passed on Feb. 5, 2018, unanimously, with the rules requiring three readings suspended. The tax, which went into effect on July 1, does not apply to retirement income, senior citizens or those on disability income.

The move was done as an “emergency” measure to net the village $1.12 million annually, after a ramp up period of three years. Monies collected would help the village handle maintenance of state Route 125.

“I hope [those affected] realize that we were the last village in Clermont County to implement an earnings tax … that with the cutbacks on local government funding … that we were able to hold off six or seven years, longer than we an anticipated, and I think with council making this decision now, I give them a compliment for doing that,” Todd Hart, village mayor, said at the time.

One of the factors in the move is that the village is preparing to become a city after the results of the 2020 census are tallied; the state of Ohio mandates that municipalities with more than 5,000 residents become cities.

As of 2017, according to county documents, Amelia’s population 5,149, up from 2,979 in 2000. The population is expected to go up to 5,379 by 2022.

Before the June 29 meeting officially started, Renee Gerber, former councilwoman and the lead organizer around trying to dissolve the village, tried to deliver petitions to Hart and the rest of the council.

Gerber had been on council since 2009 until she resigned in April 2016. Gerber’s term was set to expire on December 31, 2019.

She told The Sun in 2011 that she moved to the village in 2005 with her husband, who was retired from the Army, because they wanted the feel of a “close community, like we had in our military community.”

At the time, she talked about representing the residents while also making tough choices while on council.

“Budgetary issues will be the biggest challenges ahead,” she said. “How are we going to continue operating when our federal money has been cut?”

Gerber resigned in 2016 because of disagreements with Hart and the rest of council over police coverage in the village.

“I wanted to get more police officers so we had adequate coverage,” she explained. “Just regular support of [the police] is lacking in council and the mayor in general.”

Two years later, Gerber tried to deliver petitions to Hart, with Hart rejecting them.

At the meeting, there was to be no public input, Hart said. Of course, that didn’t stop many of the residents in attendance from shouting out at different points during the less than 10 minute meeting to voice opposition.

Hart began with prepared remarks, defending the 1 percent income tax, mentioning the road improvement projects, like state Route 125 and road repairs in Amelia Park.

“Without any understanding of the costs involved in these projects, a small group of individuals – many who don’t even live in Amelia – have started a campaign to try to dissolve the Village,” Hart read. “However, talk of dissolving the Village is serious and directly affects the ability of our community to move forward, attract businesses and complete projects already funded and underway.”

As examples of other projects, Hart cited a “significant project planned” across the street from the administration building; a “large healthcare company” that would invest $30 million into the village; and $1 million in bonds sold to construct a new intersection at state Route 125 and Woodlands Drive.

“We cannot have residents, banks, developers or businesses questioning our commitments,” he said.

It was that line in particular that stoked the ire of the residents in attendance, with residents shouting out, “Oh my god!”; “We have a voice!”; and “You got to be kidding me!”

“We are having a meeting. If there’s one more outburst or comment made during this meeting, I will ask the chief of police, since you’re disrupting this active meeting, to escort you out,” Hart said in response.

That set off the people even more, with expletives shouted at the mayor and residents walking out of the meeting.

Chief Jeff Wood was in attendance, along with Officer Shane Olson and they began ushering people out.

“I don’t care what you ask,” Gerber said back to Hart. “This is not a meeting; this is you telling everybody what you’re going to do.”

Olson was the one who approached Gerber to try to get her to leave, to which she said, “I’m not leaving. Shane, I’m not going.”

Wood said Olson doesn’t want to have to arrest her, to which Gerber replied, “If you have to arrest me, you have to.”

Gerber was then escorted out.

“You know, let me make one comment, this is true: If you don’t like who’s doing the work we’re doing here, vote us out,” Hart said.

Hart then continued his remarks, asking council to amend the procedures for the surrender of corporate powers or dissolution to require any petition seeking dissolution to have a two-third vote of village council before it can be accepted by the board of elections and proceed to the ballot.

“It is my job as Mayor to protect the Village. I took an oath to defend the Charter and Ordinances of the Village,” Hart said. “I am sworn to do so and I am asking you to do the same by supporting the proposed Ordinance in front of you.”

That two-third vote of council would be in addition to the required petitions of 30 percent of Amelia electors.

The measure passed by council unanimously.

In total, 171 signatures were gathered by Renee Gerber and the others working to dissolve the village.

Joseph Braun, village solicitor, explained why the petitions were rejected after the meeting.

“Under the Ohio statue, we have 30 days to review whatever she gives us,” Braun said. “She was just out of order trying to present that to us. She left them there but it’s irrelevant because we’ve changed the law.”

Meanwhile, Hart did sit down with a few residents after the meeting to try to explain why this was done, saying developers would’ve walked out that very night had council not made this change.

“Doors are open. Please come up. I always invite everybody,” Hart said, if residents want to discuss the issue.

Residents Pam Barker and Anna Carter, along with many others from the meeting, were standing around outside the administration building.

Carter said they were upset and expressed that to council because they didn’t do the three readings of the tax ordinance.

“So the only alternative we had to that issue was to then try to dissolve the issue,” Barker said, who mentioned that she was around for the last attempt at this in 2008. “Then we wouldn’t have to pay the one percent.”

This was their “in-run around us” to not allow us to dissolve the village, Barker said.

Carter said it’s really a critique of the process; maybe we do or don’t need the 1 percent, but the process is “railroading.”

“We wanted them to prove that they needed the money. Prove to me, show me your spreadsheets, show me your shortfalls, show me your projects, you know?” Barker said. “We spend $100,000 on furniture for our Victorian mansion.”

Barker was referring to the administration building at 119 West Main Street.

The back-and-forth animosity wasn’t over yet; Clayton Fite, village councilman, came out of the building and walked past Barker, Carter and Chris Hicks, former county auditor candidate, and that set off another wave of heated discussions, with Gerber joining in as well.

“You had your say, made your disruptions, made your threats,” Fite said to Carter. “Nobody else can talk but you; I understand that. You’re embarrassing this community.”

Fite continued, “We represent all of you people; you don’t want to hear the truth.”

Fite has was appointed to council since 2015, living in Amelia since 1990 and he told the crowd that his family has been in the village for 80 years.

“This discussion has been going on for years. I don’t run the meetings. The mayor runs the meetings,” Fite said, in response to questions over procedure. “This is too important, there’s too much going on.”

Fite said the people are afraid of change.

“You don’t want to see any improvements?” he said.

Fite, like Hart, directed blame to the state representatives and Governor John Kasich for causing what’s happened in Amelia and the steps council needed to take therein, with respect to handling state Route 125.

“You guys don’t know anything about finance,” Gerber then jumped in. “This is my village, too, it’s got nothing to do with how long you live here.”

Gerber continued, “You represent me!”

“I represent everybody in this village,” Fite said.

Gerber told The Sun no charges would be filed against her.

“He said because I don’t live in the village as long as him, I don’t count,” Gerber said of Fite. “Clayton said you’re just a little minute person.”

Previous reporting by The Sun, including by reporter, Megan Alley, contributed to this report.