A Colerain Township trustee could face ethics charges over alleged conflicts of interest.
Colerain Township Trustee Bernie Fiedeldey announced earlier this year he would not seek a third term as one of the township’s three trustees.
“The first term, I was going in to do my civic duty,” said the 69-year-old retiree. “I got talked into the second term, but that was it. I was doing my civic duty, but I’ve also got a bunch of grandkids I’ve not been spending time with like I should.”
The job of township trustee can be dull, between the decisions about road maintenance, spending provisions, utility contracts and a handful of public events that make board meetings tedious repetitions of the same reports and procedures.
But Fiedeldey might wish the end of his final term had more of these run-of-the-mill meetings and less of what it has had lately: controversy. Earlier this spring, former Colerain Township clerk Kathy Mohr filed a complaint against Fiedeldey with the Ohio Ethics Commission (OEC). In it, she alleges the trustee failed to disclose relationships with seasonal park employees and violated conflict-of-interest rules when the township awarded contracts for two construction projects.
“I can see what happens when nobody pays attention, and I’m never going away,” says Mohr, who served as the township’s clerk from 1988 to 2003, when incumbent township fiscal officer Heather Harlow defeated her. She explained that she began to grow concerned after reading old trustee meeting minutes last summer.
“I thought, I’m just going to go on the Internet and look at the minutes,” she says. “There were a lot of things that jumped out at me, and then the thing came out with the kids.”
Fiedeldey’s grandchildren, Kelsey Barge and Zach Barge, have worked for the township as seasonal parks employees since 2005 and 2006, respectively. In each of those years, records show that the trustee voted on the hiring, re-hiring and pay adjustments for both grandchildren, a violation of Ohio ethics regulations.
Fiedeldey calls the issue an “innocent mistake.”
“I didn’t know that (conflict-of-interest statutes) went all the way to grandkids,” he says. “When these came up at the meetings and (Jim Reuter, the board’s attorney) was sitting there, he never said anything.”
Reuter says that because of the different last names and seasonal employee hiring procedures that cover multiple hires at once, he was unaware the Barges were Fiedeldey’s grandchildren until another trustee mentioned it during the March 10 board meeting.
“It’s a terrible shame it happened, but going forward I’m sure at this point everyone knows what the rules are,” he says. “We’re going to try to be vigilant to avoid a repeat, and that’s the best we can do.”
The trustees held a special session March 12 to determine the best way to address the ethics violation. That meeting’s minutes show that although Reuter commented that the only way he saw to address the issue would be to invalidate and repeat the vote, Fiedeldey could not get either of his fellow trustees to second his motion to call for what would have essentially been a “do-over” meeting.
“I said, ‘I’d like to fix this,’ and they wouldn’t do it,” he says, adding that a re-vote would likely have little effect, since every vote affecting his grandchildren since 2005 has been unanimous.
Immediately after the March meetings, Mohr appears in the meeting records. She raised questions about the Barge children during meetings on March 24 and June 14, when trustee Jeffrey Ritter told her the matter was closed.
Located northwest of Cincinnati, Colerain Township has 60,144 residents — making it Ohio’s largest township. It has a $34.8 million annual budget and 292 employees.
Mohr used part of her March 24 appearance to ask if any of the trustees had connections to a list of six construction firms. Fiedeldey said his company, Fiedeldey Steel Fabricators, had done work with two of them: Cole & Russell Architects and Turner Construction, a construction management firm.
“Of course,” Fiedeldey said when Mohr asked about Turner. “Turner is one of the largest contractors in the U.S.”
Turner and Fiedeldey Steel were both contractors for Clinton-Massie School District’s 2002 high school reconstruction project. According to Clinton-Massie officials, Turner served as construction manager and Fiedeldey Steel was a contractor paid directly by the school district.
Mohr contends that when township trustees voted to hire Turner as construction manager for the township’s public services building and Fire Station 109, Fiedeldey used his position to score the contract for the management firm.
Fiedeldey denies the accusation, saying that he has essentially been retired from the steel company since about the same time he took office.
“I’ve been bailing out probably since a little bit before the election,” he said. “I go to a staff meeting on Mondays and that’s about it.”
And though OEC officials would not comment on any pending cases, they say Fiedeldey may have done nothing wrong in regards to the Turner contract. For one thing, township trustees are not required to make the financial and business disclosures required of other elected officials. Secondly, the nature of the relationship between Fiedeldey Steel and Turner may not have presented any conflict of interest at all.
“Generally, ethics law prohibits public officials from using their authority or positions in any way to secure positions for business associates,” says OEC chief advisory attorney Jennifer Hardin. “Just the fact that someone had a former business relationship with another individual would not make that person an ongoing business relationship.”
The outcome of Mohr’s complaint remains a mystery to all the parties involved.
Neither she nor Fiedeldey have heard anything from the OEC, and commission investigations are kept confidential; if no charges are filed, no one will ever know how far the investigation went.
But both sides do have their own views on why these issues have come to the public eye at all. Though Fiedeldey did not refer to Mohr by name, he did say he suspected a longstanding grudge, rather than political oversight, might be behind the allegations.
“The person that supposedly (filed the complaint) had issues with me,” he says, explaining that he once called Mohr to task for errors in meeting minutes during her tenure. “She has taken offense to that, because I asked her to do her job.”
For her part, Mohr denies any political motivation behind the complaint.
“I have no desire to go back into (politics),” she says. “I’m making sure the officials do what they’re supposed to do.
“This is strictly from a concerned citizen’s viewpoint.”