By Linda Dillman
As Canal Winchester City Council prepared to go on a two-week summer break, discussion of a community coffee still surfaced at council’s July 1 work session.
Councilman Mike Coolman clarified his position regarding the coffees, a topic of lengthy debate during a previous council meeting, citing social media and news reports alleging Coolman and other council members, along with the mayor, opposed the informal get-togethers.
“This is not the case,” said Coolman. “First, let me make it perfectly clear that Mayor Ebert has always said it is up to city council to decide whether to change the ordinance for the use of the Interurban building. Additionally, though I have concerns, this doesn’t mean I don’t support these coffees.”
Council members Jill Amos and Will Bennett originated the idea for the informal, once-a-month coffees, hosted on a rotating basis by council representatives as an effort to reach out to the community. Residents are invited to share their concerns and questions without having to attend a regular council meeting.
Sparked by a request for meeting space, a discussion ensued between council members and city administrators during a June 17 council meeting. Amos asked if it was possible for council members to have gratis access on a limited basis to meeting space in city-owned buildings. She wanted to hold the June coffee in the Interurban building and was told by the mayor there was an $80 fee, which she paid.
Previous coffees were held in free meeting space throughout the community, but—according to current rules—if a council member wants to hold a public event not sponsored by the city in a city-owned property, they are required to pay a fee.
According to city ordinance, the mayor has the authority to restrict the use of the buildings and set special fees if appropriate for three classifications of rentals set by council. Each classification has separate rates.
Ebert said he explained his reason for the fee and told Amos if she wanted to discuss the issue with council at an upcoming meeting—which she did in June—and if council viewed it differently, he would be happy to waive the fee.
Council did not vote on changing the requirement in June, but held a long discussion on the topic, as well as the status of the coffee as a non-city sponsored activity.
On July 1, Coolman read a Dec. 19, 2018 email he sent to council members after the idea for the coffees was first presented to the council by Jill Amos and Will Bennett.
Because of his deep involvement in community-related activities such as being president of Destination: Canal Winchester, vice president of the Labor Day festival and Human Services/Food Pantry board member, many of which require weekend involvement, Coolman said his situation is complicated as far as participation in another weekend event like the coffees.
“That is why I believe the other council members can and should partake in the Community Coffees, so long as each has a fair opportunity to be a part of the Community Coffee,” Coolman said regarding the rotation of council members. “Also, the timely reporting by the committee (involved in the coffees) of the residents’ questions to the city administration is vital. As referenced at our last meeting (June 17), the lack of timely responses to the residents of Canal Winchester results in negative criticism by the residents.”
Amos said the process continues to evolve and, as of the last Community Coffee, notes were submitted to the city staff prior to the end of the weekend.
Since the coffees are currently not sponsored by the city, Amos said logistics require someone to find and book a location, arrange for snacks/coffee and promote the event.
“We have only hosted five events thus far, and, as we ironed out all of the details, it was easier to only rotate in one member,” said Amos. “We have done enough of these now to have a better understanding of how it needs to be run including: timing, communication, feedback and location.”
Starting in August, Amos said the community coffees will be held at the Community Center.
“Having a permanent location will hopefully increase the number of residents participating and allow for the ease of transitioning other council members into this event should they choose to participate,” said Amos. “A sign-up sheet was sent to council members on June 26 that provides available dates through the end of the year. As of today, only Lynch, Jarvis, Bennett and (Amos) have signed up.”
According to Coolman, the request for special permission to waive the building fees and grant weekend use violates Ordinance No 16-046.
“Asking the mayor to execute such a decision is not only wrong, but is a misuse of our city council authority as the residents of Canal Winchester would not be allowed the same privilege,” said Coolman. “(It’s) just my opinion.”
Amos said that while the current ordinance does not allow the mayor to waive the fees for the community center or the Interurban building on weekends, council has the opportunity to adjust that ordinance if it sees fit.
“Mike’s concern is that we would have received an improper benefit,” said Amos. “However, we see this as an outreach opportunity to better serve the residents. Community Coffee is for our residents in the community. Those who have participated are giving their time outside of the Monday evening meetings to engage our community in great conversation. We invest our time and money into this event because we feel passionate about representing our community. We will continue to serve our community and we will continue to grow this program for the better.”
Coolman said Amos proposed new guidelines for the coffees, which included timely posting of residents’ questions/concerns within one week of the meeting.
“She also has illustrated that the response to these questions/concerns by Canal Winchester city administration include only those Canal Winchester council members that were at the meeting (coffee),” Coolman said. “How is this fair for the city council members that cannot attend the meetings, especially if asked by their friends in the community about those topics? I believe all city council members should be informed. That is poor established protocol and is supposed to be followed with communication to the residents.”
Coolman questioned why the idea was proposed, alleging it is not fair for all council members and does not follow established protocol.
“It is these inconsistent behaviors that lead me to think why are my fellow council members so divided?” Coolman asked. “This type of attitude and action plan needs to be avoided and all of council needs to work together and communicate more effectively with one another for the good of the community and the residents that voted us to represent them.”