1 S. London St.  Mt. Sterling, Ohio 43143
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Mount Sterling approves 2018 expenses
By Michael Williamson - mwilliamson@aimmediamidwest.com

Mount Sterling Village Council held a special meeting Wednesday to amend its 2018 budget. On the recommendation of the finance committee, council suspended rules for a first, second and third reading of legislation revisions to approve Ordinance 2017-29 which made appropriations for current expenses in Mount Sterling for the 2018 fiscal year.
The budget for 2018 had some funds in the negative, prompting council to find a solution before the end of the year.
“We readjusted how the salaries are appropriated to the different funds,” said Rebecca Burns, council member and president of the finance committee. To do that, they looked at the salaries of village employees.
In October, Mount Sterling’s street supervisor, Brett Towler, was hospitalized with an injury and will be recovering for an indefinite amount of time. With him off duty, the finance committee suggested re-appropriating his salary to satisfy the budget. “With the auditor’s approval, we were able to move him from streets for the time being to the general fund,” Burns added.
“Right now, even though that may not be the long-term, it was enough to satisfy the requirements that we do not put any other funds into the negative,” she said. “The whole goal was to submit a budget that was as true and accurate as could be.”
The village’s fiscal officer, Courtney Bricker, can now submit an approved budget to the county auditor.
Wednesday’s meeting was the last meeting of 2017 with the current council. Starting in January, council members Jim Davis, Diane Spradlin and Mary Lou Stiverson-Ratliff will step down and be replaced by Rebecca Martin, Tammy Vansickle and Thomas Ward.

New Monument at Gazebo Park in Mt. Sterling
Fixing problems and moving forward 
Mt. Sterling officials react to audit and plan for future
By Michael Williamson - mwilliamson@aimmediamidwest.com

  Following the release of the two-year special audit from the State Auditor’s office, Mount Sterling officials say they are looking toward moving past the incidents of the last five years.
“We are well aware of being in a fiscal emergency and will be probably for the next two years,” said mayor Billy Martin. “That’s why we’re putting so much work into cutting costs.”
  The released audit details how former administrator Joe Johnson and former mayor Charlie Neff made it so that financial matters regarding the village were decided by them. This piece of legislation was then corrected after Johnson’s resignation in March 2016.
  The village’s fiscal officer Courtney Bricker wanted to remind the community that the report is about Johnson.
“This audit means Joe Johnson’s case is over,” she said. “This is obviously Johnson’s story.”
  She said council’s job is to move toward making the village strong.
“We’re here to make residents trust us again,” Bricker added.
Most of the measures being taken to correct the village’s organization are being handled at the council and committee meetings.
  At Monday’s meeting, council went into executive session to discuss the “continued employment of the street supervisor,” according to village law director Mark Pitstick. Brett Towler, the village’s street supervisor, was hospitalized in October 2017 with an injury and will be recovering for an indefinite amount of time.
  In a previous special meeting, council met to amend the 2018 budget which consisted of taking Towler’s salary and moving it to the general fund with approval by the State Auditor.
  Mayor Martin also said that meetings will function to help council work to get the operations back in order from the changes made by previous administrations.
Also at Monday’s meeting, they put an ordinance on a second reading that would amend the rules of council dealing with those financial decisions.
  “This is simply an ordinance that puts the power back where it belongs: your village council members,” Martin said. “As you all well know, it hadn’t been like that in the past and we suffered for it. But they’re doing their job now.”

The Auditor of State’s office released the special report on the Village of Mount Sterling Tuesday morning, detailing a two-year investigation into the village’s finances. The special audit orders 11 individuals, including the village’s former mayor, to repay a combined total of $998,050 — $871,545 of which is tied directly to former village administrator Joe Johnson.
“This report marks the final chapter of one of the most deplorable and devastating cases of local government corruption in recent memory,” Auditor Dave Yost said in a message released by his office. “Hopefully taxpayers can find some solace in the knowledge that those responsible are answering for their crimes and will never again have a chance to ransack the community.”
Auditor of State Assistant Legal Counsel Robert F. Smith served as special prosecutor.
Johnson’s facts and figures
According to the audit, Johnson took the $800,000-plus through a variety of means between getting hired as village administrator in January 2012 to his resignation in early 2016. The majority of the money came from Johnson paying himself $368,682 in excess of his approved salary over four years. He also charged $228,420 to his village-issued credit card to buy himself items such as vehicles, electronics, snow plows, trailers, a camper, a tractor and automotive equipment.
The credit card also paid for a four-day vacation at the Westin Resort in Cape Coral, Florida during 2014. Johnson’s theft lead to an indictment on 30 counts in July 2017, which landed him a 10-year prison sentence. The large sum of money, according to Yost, is the prime contributor to the village being in fiscal emergency.
An additional $17,129 was charged through the use of village fuel cards.
Johnson was able to manipulate the payroll system through legislation that made the village administrator and mayor responsible for village finances. Through that manipulation, Johnson increased his $28 per hour starting rate to nearly $50 without approval by council.
Former mayor, administration and employees
Another major figure in the case was former village mayor Charlie Neff. He was convicted of theft in office, falsification and dereliction of duty in August 2017. According to the audit, Neff is accountable for $1,611 in improper payments to himself and others, and jointly liable for another $64,551. In December, he was sentenced to 30 days in jail, three years of probation and ordered to pay nearly $10,000 in restitution.
Two of the village’s former fiscal officers, Vicki Sheets and Lana Cydrus, were also named in the special audit as being responsible for disbursements without proper documentation. Cydrus was responsible for three disbursements totaling $1,732 and an additional $200 in unauthorized food and gas purchases. The auditor is requiring Cydrus to pay back $1,953 in total.
Sheets plead guilty to the falsification of Johnson’s resignation date in March 2017 which allowed him to collect his pension earlier than expected. According to the audit, she is being ordered to pay back $44,899 in funds.
Bonnie Liff, Neff’s utility clerk and administrative assistant at the time, was named as one of seven employees who owe a combined $76,733 for accepting improper leave payouts. Of that amount, $44,887 went directly to Liff who eventually plead guilty to theft in office.
The seven employees who accepted the payouts were Bonnie Liff, Brett Towler, Chris Beaver, Chris Ladley, David Cline, Madison Newsome and Ronnie Vansickle. The village also paid the seven employees $30,838 in bonuses but, according to the audit, they appeared to be properly authorized.
Move Ohio Forward Grant
Another factor in the declaration of the village’s fiscal emergency was the $185,825 Move Ohio Forward grant reimbursement, used in the demolition of 16 condemned properties in Madison County. Since the emergency, the village has paid back a portion of the funds and at the end of 2017, the village’s Cash Summary by Fund showed the deficit closer to $40,000.
According to the audit, details about the reimbursement from the grant, which was administered by Johnson in accordance with the Ohio Attorney General’s office, appeared to be done properly.
Special audit
On Nov. 1, the State Auditor’s office held an exit conference with the village council explaining the details of the investigation.
Council had five days to respond and did so on Nov. 8, allowing the changes to be reflected in the finished special report.
A copy of the full audit can be found on the State Auditor’s website.

Mt. Sterling audit released
By Michael Williamson - mwilliamson@aimmediamidwest.com

Mount Sterling looks to hire village administrator

By Amanda Ensinger, Staff Writer

  Personnel changes could be in the works for the village of Mount Sterling.
  “Recently, I was called to a meeting with the state auditor who said we have to get a village administrator,” said Mayor Billy Martin at the Jan. 28 village council meeting. “As you are aware, (Courtney Bricker) is fulfilling 75 percent of what this job entails, but we need someone who can do this job all the time.”
  For more than a year, Bricker has been fulfilling her duties as fiscal officer and clerk of council, as well as performing most of the duties associated with the village administrator position. Mount Sterling has been without an administrator since terminating John Martin’s contract in the fall of 2017.
  “I think this will be a great opportunity for the village,” Bricker said about filling the position. “Where I lack or don’t have time to do things, this person will be able to step in.”
  The village administrator’s duties include overseeing village employees, managing budget appropriations, requesting bids and contracts for improvement projects, ensuring Environmental Protection Agency compliance, researching and applying for grants, and making purchasing and cost-saving decisions.
  The financial commission committee, which includes Mayor Martin, council president pro tem David Timmons, and representatives from the state, will discuss the administrator position during a meeting at 10 a.m. Feb. 5 at town hall. A special meeting of council is likely to follow within a few days, with the job being posted within a couple of weeks, according to Bricker.
  While council members did not voice opposition to hiring an administrator, some were concerned about the State Auditor’s Office continuing to tell Mount Sterling leadership how to run the village.
  “I have no problem hiring an administrator. My issue is with the state auditor and them telling us what to do,” said council member Lowell Anderson. “We can have a village administrator position without filling it. I am sick of the state auditor telling us what to do and this needs to stop.”
The state has been overseeing the village’s financials since declaring the village to be in a state of fiscal emergency in June 2017.
  Council also discussed the need to hire additional staff. Recently, the water plant operator resigned, leaving the village with two full-time laborists–the street utility/mechanic and the waste water technician. Previously, the village had five to seven full-time labor staffers. The village has posted the water operator position.
  “It may take us longer to respond to certain things with this limited staff,” Bricker warned residents. “Please be patient and know we are getting to you as quick as possible.”
  Bricker commended the staff for not taking overtime pay during recent snow removal. Bricker said some employees worked as much as 15 hours overtime and, instead of taking time-and-a-half pay, opted for additional comp time to help the village save money.
  Mayor Martin announced there will be no nuisance or block watch committees this year due to council members refusing to serve on the committees. At a recent meeting, council members Tammy Vansickle, Rebecca Burns and Tom Ward refused to serve on committees to which Timmons assigned them. The council members cited time constraints and health concerns as their reasons for not serving on the committees.
  “The rules of council say you cannot refuse to be on an assigned committee,” Mayor Martin said. “However, right now we have several council members refusing to serve on the committees they were assigned. As a result, we will not have a nuisance and abatement and block watch committees.”
  Also at the meeting, residents and internal staff voiced concerns about council members’ ongoing arguments and bickering with one another.
  Resident Bob Fish talked about Ward walking out of the prayer at the beginning of the last council meeting.
“I am very disappointed in council. To invite a guest to the meeting and then walk out is embarrassing,” Fish said, referring to the local pastor who led the prayer. “This guest has helped the village and to walk out on them is an embarrassment.”
  Mark Pitstick, village law director, also expressed frustration.
  “I also am disappointed with council. We were at the top and heading towards easy street, but instead the council is now split 50/50 with the mayor having to break ties,” Pitstick said. “I think we need to come together, sit down, apologize and act like adults. We are all 50-plus (years old) and need to step up to the plate and do what is best for the citizens.”

Council member walks out of meeting 

By Amanda Ensinger, Staff Writer

Tempers flared at the Jan. 14 Mount Sterling village council meeting, resulting in one council member walking out of the meeting.

The night got off to a rocky start when council members argued about whether to start the meeting with a prayer.

“In order to change the format of the meeting, there should be an amendment to change the rules of council,” said Rebecca Burns, council member. “I was surprised we weren’t presented with this because the format of the meetings has changed.”

Some council members said they were not comfortable with including prayer in a public meeting.

“I want to make sure there is a separation between church and state,” said Tom Ward, council member. “I am not comfortable participating in this and will excuse myself.”

Burns, Ward and Tammy Vansickle voted against starting the meeting with a prayer, while Lowell Anderson, Becky Martin and David Timmons voted for it. Mayor Billy Martin broke the tie, voting in favor of including a prayer.

Ward excused himself from the meeting during the prayer.

Afterwards, Misty Vance, the village utilities clerk, addressed council about accusations made against her at a previous council meeting.

“I was not in attendance at the last meeting and there were a few comments made about me that I would like to address,” Vance said. “One of the comments was a question from council member Tammy Vansickle’s husband about overtime being paid to me. I am not paid overtime, and several council members here could have stated that because they approve my time, including Tammy.”

Vance also addressed an accusation by Ron Vansickle that insinuated she and Mayor Martin were engaging in in appropriate activities. At the last council meeting, Ron Vansickle asked the mayor why he worked late hours with Vance.

At the Jan. 14 meeting, Tammy Vansickle said she would not take a stand on comments her family members made.

“I’m not defending or criticizing a family member,” Vansickle said. “I am not going to address comments a family member said and will abstain from that conversation.”

Vance said Vansickle’s duties as a council member should include clarifying information she knows is false, referring to the overtime pay accusation.

“It is your job to divulge information to the public and offer explanations for questions,” Vance said. “I’m not asking you to speak against a family member, I’m asking you to do your job. You approve my time sheets and know I don’t get paid for overtime.”

Also at the meeting, Mayor Martin and Ward got into a heated exchange related to complaints from residents about village staff. Recently, a resident complained that Vance did not answer their phone calls to discuss their utility bill.

“I took a complaint from a resident and gave it to Mayor Martin,” Ward said. “I’m sick of delivering reports to him and nothing happening.”

Mayor Martin said it is not council’s responsibility to try to reprimand employees.

“Council members do not write letters for my employees and request they are put into their personnel file,” Martin said. “I write those letters and decide what goes into employees’ files.”

Ward then walked away from his council seat.

“Someone needs to stand up for the people,” Ward said on his way out. “I’ll sit in the audience for the rest of the meeting and take the night off.”

Mount Sterling stands with Patrick Dunkley, a friend from church who painted this farm scene on Redman’s garage door.

By Becky Barker, Messenger Staffer

Personal touches make a house a home.
In Dick Redman’s case, personality and imagination have found a place on a once blank garage door.
This fall, Redman asked Patrick Dunkley, a friend from church, to transform the unorthodox canvas into a mural.
“I lived in Green Valley, Arizona, for a while and my neighbor had her garage door painted twice a year,” said Redman, who decided he wanted to do the same for his Mount Sterling home.
Dunkley, who has enjoyed painting for most of his adult life, mainly through set designs for community theater, was happy to oblige.
“I’ve painted sets for many high school programs in London and West Jefferson, as well as set designs for shows for London Players and the Madison County Arts Council,” he said.
He also has painted the walls of his children’s bedrooms multiple times. Currently, his son’s room is Star Wars-themed and his daughter’s room features landscapes of Africa and Asia.
“While I don’t do this for a living, I do enjoy painting for good causes and friends,” Dunkley said.
In discussing ideas for the garage door mural, Redman told Dunkley he wanted a farm scene with bright colors. He also asked for a little church on a hill, a horse and wagon in the hay, and a biplane overhead.
When asked why this particular scene, Redman said, “Because I’m an ole farm boy.”
Once the concept was finalized, Dunkley pre-primed the garage door with an oil-based primer and painted the mural in acrylics for quick drying. Once finished, he sprayed the door with exterior varnish then brushed on an ultraviolet protective clear gloss.
The project took about 50 hours to complete. Dunkley worked on it on evenings and weekends over the past few months.
“I really enjoyed painting with Mr. Redman sitting outside with me,” Dunkley said. “We chatted about life and friends. Occasionally, a neighbor would stop by to visit with him while I painted. His hope would be that the mural would bring a bit of brightness and joy to his neighbors.”