September 24, 2012
Avoiding what could have been a violation of the Ohio Revised Code, Delaware County commissioners on Monday moved to rescind a contract awarded last week to a company that lists a county board of elections member as one of its owners.
The 3-0 vote strips the contract worth up to $25,000 from the Great American Title Agency, which would have performed title searches for the county as part of the Moving Ohio Forward Grant program. The company is owned by Shawn Stevens, a Delaware County Board of Elections member and the Delaware County Republican Party’s executive committee chairman.
The Ohio Revised Code prohibits “a member of the county board of elections from selling property or services to the county” in which they are employed.
The law exists to protect against cronyism by better assuring that local government is getting services because they are objectively the best services available, Ohio Ethics Commission Executive Director Paul Nick said.
There are, however, exceptions to the law. The statue does not apply if Stevens can prove that the services are necessary, that they are unobtainable elsewhere for the same or lower costs, that the county does not receive preferential treatment and that he and his company take no part in the deliberations.
Stevens and the Great American Title Agency appear to have cleared most of those hurdles. Stevens’ company did provide the lowest quote, offering to charge the county $250 for each title search. The other company that offered a quote, Lawyers Title Agency of Delaware, proposed to do the work for $375 per title search.
But the law also requires that Stevens disclose his interest in the company to the commissioners. Because he did not want to influence their decision-making, he failed to do that, and immediately sought to pull out of the contract once he realized that his failure to do so could make profiting from the contract illegal.
“Because there has been some question as to my position within the county, I believe it is in the best interest of Great American Title to decline the contract,” he wrote to the commissioners last week. “I am disappointed that this will likely cause increases in the cost for the citizens of Delaware County, as our bid was the lowest received.”
Stevens said he was not seeking a contract from the county specifically, but that the contract came about as part of the title agency’s efforts to seek contracts statewide through a state grant. The company has already won work in at least three other counties in the state via the grant.
“I am working with counties statewide on the Moving Ohio Forward Demolition Program,” Stevens said. “Apparently, on the Delaware project, I am able to bid it as long as I submit an affidavit stating my position as a Board of Elections board member. To prevent any unseemly appearance, however, I have decided to ask the commissioners to rescind my company’s proposal altogether.”
Because neither Stevens nor his company actually profited from the contract, no laws were violated.
“The statue doesn’t prohibit awarding the contract,” Nick said. “It prevents having an interest in the contract and profiting from it.”
Assistant prosecuting attorney Aric Hochstettler said neither he nor the commissioners immediately thought of Stevens as a county employee due to his position at the board of elections.
“I think it was just overlooked but in this case no harm, no foul,” he said. “The lesson will hopefully be learned on all sides to pay attention to those fine details.”
Commissioners are expected to vote Thursday to formally award the contract to Lawyers Title Agency of Delaware. Once the contract is awarded, it will move the county one step closer to launching the grant program that will use federal dollars to remove some 30 to 40 dilapidated buildings throughout the county.