August 30, 2014

Medina
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Expert: Taxpayer suit has better chance in Stepp contract case

A lawsuit filed by a Medina taxpayer may have a better chance of succeeding in getting Medina Schools Superintendent Randy Stepp’s contract rescinded — something the school board tried to do unilaterally in April.

That’s the conclusion of a legal expert asked about the unusual case.

“It’s clearly a little cleaner to have a taxpayer file suit,” said Tim Smith, professor emeritus at Kent State University and an expert in media law and public records laws. “Then you’ve got the standard way of dealing with the issue.”

The suit was filed by J.R. Russell Jr. against the Medina school board and Stepp. It asks the Medina County Common Pleas court to invalidate Stepp’s five-year contract and $83,000 signing bonus.

Russell’s suit alleges the board violated open meetings laws when it approved Stepp’s contract on Jan. 7. The contract was approved during a work session and the initial draft of the minutes didn’t include the contract approval.

On April 16, the board voted to rescind Stepp’s contract, stating that it failed to properly publicize the Jan. 7 meeting.

On May 17, Stepp responded by filing a federal lawsuit against the board for breach of contract. The board then responded by filing a counterclaim against Stepp. The two suits set the stage for what could be a lengthy legal battle in federal court.

Smith said the way the school board voted to rescind Stepp’s contract because it violated open meetings laws was an “unusual” way of dealing with open meetings law issues.

While a board can rescind something because it violated open meetings laws, Smith said that rescinding a contract the board already awarded opens the door to a civil action — such as the suit Stepp filed in federal court alleging breach of contract.

The more traditional way of contesting an open meetings violation is outlined in the Ohio Revised Code. Ohio’s public meetings laws state that the remedy for an open meetings violation is for “any person” to bring a suit before a court of common pleas and ask a judge to “issue an injunction to compel the members of the public body to comply with its provisions.”

Brian Kerns, an attorney representing Russell said his client hopes to help bring an end to the legal wrangling over Stepp’s contract by asking a common pleas court judge to invalidate Stepp’s contract.

“Our goal is simply to bring this matter to closure as swiftly and efficiently as we can,” he said.

Russell’s case was filed Monday and assigned to Common Pleas Judge Christopher J. Collier. But on Wednesday, Collier and Common Pleas Judge James L. Kimbler removed themselves from the case to “avoid the appearance of impropriety” and asked a visiting judge be appointed.

Contact reporter Loren Genson at (330) 721-4063 or lgenson@medina-gazette.com.