Scio accused of extortion in court
CADIZ — Harsh words were again used during an injunction hearing Tuesday in Harrison County Common Pleas Court in a case between the village of Scio and a group of nearby residents who filed the action seeking to prevent the village from shutting off their water service if they refused to sign an agreement stating they agree to annexation.
A hearing was held in August before Harrison County commissioners, who heard arguments from the same attorneys and later ruled against Scio’s bid to annex land. The village’s main target has been the Utica East Ohio Midstream plant for what officials say is lack of compensation or taxes from the plant’s operations and resulting wear and tear on village infrastructure.
Scio is threatening to shut off water for residents in the proposed annexation area in 30 days, which led to the injunction. Witness for the plaintiffs Kyle Schwieterman, a civil engineer for American Structure Point — determined as an expert witness — testified that it would take two and half years to prepare and link up to another water source.
The plaintiffs included about a dozen who reside outside the village limit including Harrison County Sheriff Joe Myers.
He called Scio’s attempt “extortion” during his testimony. North Township Trustee Dan Henry called Scio’s move “a bunch of crap” and said if they wanted their township building inside Scio’s limits they would have built it there.
They weren’t alone though, as attorneys for the plaintiff repeated claims of extortion along with words like coercion and “land grab.” The defendant’s attorney, Jim Mathews, denied those claims, saying it was the village’s right to annex. Myers questioned whether the village could maintain the additional land and provide services and said he felt it could not as the reason for his stance against annexation.
“Your Honor, there’s a reason why cases like this are difficult and that reason is the law is harsh,” Mathews began his closing argument.
He cited an Ohio Supreme Court ruling from the 1940s that states “municipally owned and operated utility services are controlled exclusively by the power of that municipality’s legislature.”
He continued to lay out his case but it was clear retired Judge Linton Lewis, presiding due to other judges’ conflicts of interest, was losing patience with Matthews for answers he wasn’t pleased with on various issues. Things became dicey near the end of a five-plus hour hearing when Lewis continued questioning Mathews on the Irrevocable Power of Attorney that Scio is attempting to invoke on those residents, and if he’d seen it actually challenged in a court of law. Matthews said he hadn’t but knew the city of Alliance, Ohio, had enacted the decision.
Lewis also questioned the lack of signatures on the minutes of a key 2000 ordinance where the issue of annexation was first raised but never enacted. He pressed Mathews after he said, “the signature of an ordinance doesn’t mean anything” and that “deed of law” was sufficient.
“You have authority for that?” Lewis asked him. “You have authority for the fact that they don’t need to sign … ordinances in the state of Ohio?”
He noted there were exhibits without signatures on them to which Mathews replied, “All I have is the records,” and acknowledged they were not signed but added the law said it doesn’t matter.
When Lewis continued pressing Mathews about whether signatures matter, Mathews suggested it could be Googled “before we leave here.” Lewis said he didn’t think they had a Google plan. He continued questioning whether the ordinance was even a final draft, which Mathews could not say for sure.
“The minutes reflect the action of council,” he told Lewis, who said the minutes do not carry any weight with him without knowing if they’re official or just a draft. As Lewis continued battering Mathews, the air in the defendant’s argument seemed to dissipate from the courtroom.
Mathews said there was an agreement between Scio and the recipients of its services to be “bound by all of the rules.” Lewis interrupted, asking him about Harrison County and a contract.
“How could there be a contract when there’s no arrangement between parties?” Mathews answered.
When Lewis interpreted his words to mean Scio could shut down Harrison County water service tomorrow because there is no contract, Mathews said, “That’s true.”
He said some of the plaintiffs even signed “forms” in 2005 agreeing to Scio service but subject to termination by either party “at any time, no cause with thirty days notice.”
Scio Village Administrator Jason Tubaugh accused the plaintiffs of “inferring” what the 30-day notice states and said a recent ordinance includes “extraterritorial residents.” The plaintiff’s injunction was filed on Oct. 19 and Miller expressed his disbelief of the action taken by Scio.
“I’ve never seen a village take these kinds of coercive stops to put these landowners under duress unlawfully, ever in my career,” he said.
Attorneys in the case now have 14 days to enter briefs before Lewis makes a ruling.