BRECKSVILLE, Ohio — City Council has begun impeachment and removal proceedings against Councilman Jack Petsche, who was charged earlier this month with unlawful interest in a public contract by a Cuyahoga County grand jury.
Council’s June 16 vote to schedule a public impeachment hearing — after which council may decide whether to remove Petsche from office — was 6-1, with Petsche casting the lone dissenting vote. The hearing is scheduled for July 21.
At the June 16 meeting, Petsche pleaded with council to delay a removal hearing vote. He said he wasn’t prepared for the vote and didn’t know beforehand that council would consider taking action that night.
“Why do I have to be ambushed this way?” Petsche asked Councilman Lou Carouse Jr. “Why wasn’t this on the agenda? Why wasn’t I given the opportunity to have my attorney here?”
Carouse told Petsche that council had been patient with Petsche. He said council delayed acting even after the Ohio Ethics Commission, during the first half of 2019, opened an investigation into Petsche, and again after the commission referred the case to Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office for possible charges.
“To continue to wait on this is something that puts us in a bad spot with a lot of people,” Carouse said. “They’re wondering: ‘Why aren’t you taking action (against Petsche)? The charter requires you to.’”
The city charter states that council can remove any member for “gross misconduct or malfeasance or nonfeasance … or upon conviction while in office of a felony or other crime involving moral turpitude, or for violation of his oath of office.”
Sergio DiGeronimo, the city’s assistant law director, said the charter also states that a council member “shall not directly or indirectly solicit … in any profit or emolument from or on account of any contract, job, work or service with or for the municipality.”
A council member can be removed from office only with the votes of five of the seven council members, and only after a public hearing at which the council member’s attorney can defend his or her client, present evidence and examine witnesses.
If council removes one of its members, its decision is final and can’t be appealed, according to the charter.
Contracts & subcontracts
Petsche faces three felony counts of having an unlawful interest in a public contract and one felony count of attempting to have an unlawful interest in a contract. He is scheduled to be arraigned July 22 in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas — one day after his scheduled removal hearing before City Council.
County prosecutors said Petsche, 66, voted as councilman to award city money to a construction firm, Panzica Construction Co., that had subcontracted with a Petsche-owned company, USA Roofing. The project was the construction of a new Brecksville police station.
Panzica, after it won the police station contract, invited USA Roofing to bid on the job as a subcontractor. Panzica accepted USA Roofing’s bid in August 2017, before Petsche was elected to council in November 2017.
Also, prosecutors said that In April and May 2018, respectively, Petsche voted with the rest of council to issue $500,000 in notes and $2 million in bonds to help pay for the police station project — on which USA Roofing was then working.
Petsche has stated that he didn’t abstain from the vote because council had previously decided to borrow money for the police station project, although the amount might not have been determined.
Prosecutors added that in March 2019, Petsche, along with the rest of council, voted to amend its pricing agreement with Panzica for the police station. Petsche said he participated in the vote because the additional costs had nothing to do with the roof USA Roofing was installing.
At any rate, prosecutors said Petsche didn’t disclose to his fellow council members the relationship between USA Roofing and Panzica until August, after USA Roofing had been paid $142,000.
Finally, prosecutors said that in May 2019, USA Roofing — while Petsche was on council — bid as a subcontractor on the city’s aquatics center renovation project. USA Roofing ultimately wasn’t hired by the general contractor, Seitz Builders, after a city official noticed that Petsche’s firm had submitted a bid to Seitz.
DiGeronimo said that under Ohio law, public officials cannot profit or benefit from a contract between the municipality he or she serves and another entity.
One of Petsche’s attorneys, Paul Daiker, has stated that Petsche looks forward to his day in court and believes that he will be exonerated.
Daiker said Petsche and USA Roofing had come to a subcontractor agreement with Panzica before he was first elected a Brecksville councilman, although the agreement wasn’t formally signed until after his election that November.
Daiker and Petsche’s other attorney, Peter Pattakos, told cleveland.com that Petsche didn’t intentionally do anything wrong. He said Petsche’s contracts were with other contractors, not the City of Brecksville.
Narrowing it down
DiGeronimo said council would base its removal proceedings only on USA Roofing’s aquatics center bid, not the bid and work on the police station. He said the charge is gross misconduct, malfeasance, nonfeasance and disqualification from office because Petsche sought to benefit financially from a city contract or subcontract.
DiGeronimo said it was council’s choice not to seek removal of Petsche for matters related to the police station project. He said council will let the court deal with that issue.
“The aquatic bid by Mr. Petsche is already established in the public record and is the only violation of the city’s charter that the City Council will consider at this time,” DiGeronimo said in an email to cleveland.com.
“The issue is very narrow, and Mr. Petsche has publicly admitted at a council meeting that he bid on the aquatic center,” DiGeronimo said.
At the June 16 meeting, council President Michael Harwood told Petsche that in September 2019, he, Petsche, had promised to resign from council if the Ohio Ethics Commission investigation determined that he had violated the law. He asked Petsche if he would resign that night.
Petsche said no. He said he hadn’t yet seen the ethics commission report or any documents related to the charges against him.
“To do this would be premature,” Petsche said regarding council’s vote to schedule a removal hearing. “What if I’m found not guilty (in court)? I am entitled to the presumption of innocence.”
Petsche asked council to table the vote on the removal hearing until after his court trial. He said a removal hearing and his possible removal from office would prejudice his court case.
“What harm is done (by delaying a hearing)?” Petsche said. “Am I doing harm to council now? Am I doing harm to the city by doing my job here as a councilman?”
Councilwoman Ann Koepke said Petsche had a point, although she would later vote to schedule the removal hearing.
“If we find him guilty, other people might, and I hate to do that,” Koepke said. “So I’m hesitant at doing that at this point without thinking more on it.”
Koepke also wondered why a vote to schedule a removal hearing wasn’t on council’s agenda that evening. She said residents, if they knew council would vote, likely would have wanted to attend.
Harwood said the vote on Petsche’s removal hearing wasn’t on the agenda because council had not received prior notification that Petsche had been indicted. He said DiGeronimo raised the issue during the regular law director’s report.
Carouse said council’s decision whether to remove Petsche from office for allegedly violating the city charter is independent of the court trial. DiGeronimo added that a felony conviction isn’t necessary to remove a council member.
Harwood said everyone on council knows that they cannot bid on city projects. He said that should have been obvious to Petsche.
Four Seasons revisited
Pattakos said nothing that he or Daiker would have said at the June 16 meeting would have changed council’s minds. He said council’s vote to begin removal proceedings against Petsche is political retaliation over the Four Seasons issue.
In 2018, the city and Cuyahoga County agreed to pay close to $682,000 in back sewer taxes for dozens of residents in the Four Seasons subdivision — where Harwood and Councilwoman Kim Veras live. The city’s contribution was $587,000.
The bailout became necessary after the city discovered that the county, for the previous 15 years, had been undercharging Four Seasons property owners for sanitary sewers built in 2001.
Harwood and Veras abstained from the vote to bailout Four Seasons. However, many residents believed council and the administration tried to hide their actions by discussing Four Seasons in private executive sessions, then voting to appropriate city money for the sewer taxes before the matter appeared on a council agenda.
At the time, Petsche said council was not being transparent with residents. He opposed the Four Season bailout.
Pattakos said the standard to remove someone from office is stricter than criteria needed to establish criminal charges.
“Council is undermining the choice of voters to elect (Petsche),” Pattakos said. “Under Ohio case law, you have to have substantial reasons to overturn the election of public officials.”
Pattakos said the Ohio Constitution guarantees due process, part of which involves an impartial tribunal. That makes council’s removal hearing illegitimate.
“We don’t believe council is impartial,” Pattakos said. “We have demanded that they submit this matter to the probate court, and there is an Ohio statute that allows for this process. We haven’t heard anything back from city officials.”
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