27 Investigates: 85% of Niles ordinances passed as emergencies in 2013


NILES, Ohio (WKBN) – On this Election Day, we’ll see the impact of how one night could change the direction of a city. Last summer, the city of Niles found out how one decision could do the same thing.

In August 2013, the city council banned fracking by passing a so-called “community bill of rights” as an emergency. It went into effect immediately and caused some backlash. That’s because it banned everything from drilling to selling water to natural gas companies. Some people thought members acted too quickly without having all the information. The council then met with groups on both sides of the issue.  It eventually reversed the decision a month later, again, as an emergency.

“It looked like something major was going to happen within the city. And if we didn’t take that action as an emergency, waiting for three readings, waiting for 30 days to become effective, a lot could have happened in that time frame,” said Niles Law Director Terry Dull.

“I think we did exactly what we needed to do. To do it over again, we probably would have,” said Niles Councilman Stephen Papalas.

Under Ohio law, it can take cities weeks or even months to pass legislation. Councils must vote three times and then wait 30 days, unless it is an emergency. Then they can suspend the rules, vote just once and have it go into effect immediately. In 2013, the city of Niles did that 85 percent of the time.It’s standard operating procedure there and it’s not alone.

Stephen Papalas has been on the Niles City Council for 34 years. Declaring an emergency is just part of the vocabulary here.

“Usually if an ordinance is considered routine, if it deals with financial transfers, things within our budget, we suspend the rules,” Papalas said.

And that comes at the recommendation of Law Director Terry Dull, who writes the legislation.

“If we had to wait for that 30 days to become effective, it certainly would slow down the process,” Dull said. “Council, in the end, has to vote on whether they’re going to suspend the rules or pass something in an emergency. So I could make a recommendation that it should be and they could say no.”

“Not only do the departments have to wait, then projects are held up but then we have a backlog of ordinances as we go through,” Papalas said.

It gives the council more time to deal with zoning changes or other major issues.

“If we’re talking multi-million-dollar projects, we go through readings,” Papalas said. “If our ordinances deal with zoning, zoning changes, things of that nature, we nearly always go with the 1st, 2nd and 3rd reading.”

27 Investigates wanted to see how Niles compared to a handful of other cities in the Mahoning Valley. So we looked through online minutes and counted how many ordinances passed as an emergency in 2013:

  • 96% YOUNGSTOWN (Mahoning County)
  • 85% NILES (Trumbull County)
  • 79% SALEM (Columbiana County)
  • 57% WARREN (Trumbull County)
  • 43% CORTLAND (Trumbull County)

Cortland City Council President James Woofter tells me it hasn’t always been this way. Things changed under the city’s new mayor a decade ago.

“He approached the department heads and said, look, you’ve got to have better planning on these things,” Woofter said. “Don’t come to council so late that everything has to come to council as an emergency. So now we have better planning in the city.”

The council went from passing four out of five ordinances as emergencies to nearly half that.

“If it’s an emergency, we know truly, in the city of Cortland, it’s an emergency,” Woofter said. “Usually when we have something that comes to council as an emergency, one of the first things that our council members ask is, why is this being presented to us in an emergency?”

Youngstown State University Political Science Professor Dr. William Binning says most people don’t follow local government. They may not know about ordinances up for discussion.

“So you’re denying the right of referendum by making an emergency,” Dr. Binning said. “They’re there as checks and balances and opportunity for the public to have their say.”

The practice has been challenged elsewhere in Ohio, but those cases were dismissed.

“Generally, the courts are upholding the municipalities’ use of the emergency powers that they’re asserting in passing the legislation so they’re not doing anything illegal,” Dr. Binning said. “They’re stretching the idea of the emergency.”

In Niles, council members say they touch base with residents on a regular basis.

“It’s been a good system here and I don’t think people are being deprived of having input,” Dull said.

There’s been a lawsuit challenging this practice in North Canton. For a meeting-by-meeting breakdown of the emergency ordinances in 2013 in the five local cities 27 Investigates audited, click here. You’ll also find links to each city’s website and meeting minutes.

 

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